Abandoned Langstroth Hives, Turkana, Kenya

Naked beekeeping: The difference between Europe and Africa

By Christopher Davey.

(This article was first published in Afrika Post in German.)

Preparing to harvest the honey … In Ireland Tom Carroll collects his beekeeping tools together then pulls on a bee suit. In Kenya, Isaac Sang collects his tools then takes off his clothes.

“There are big differences between beekeeping in Europe and Africa” said Tom Carroll, a former beekeeping advisor to smallholder farmers in Eastern Africa. “In Europe we have a long dormant period. Bees start producing honey as spring blossoms. But in Africa” he said “the seasons are usually less pronounced and vary over very small areas.”

There are many institutions helping European beekeepers. “We have less indigenous knowledge and fewer traditional practices” Tom explained. “But while European beekeeping practices are pretty much standard, African beekeepers are adaptable. It’s a complicated environment. There’s more to know. It’s harder to understand.” The vegetation changes from one area to another; races of bee can differ from location to location; people’s traditions and cultures vary; and pests are different over short distances.

 Skills and knowledge

In Africa, skills and knowledge are handed down from father to son and adapted as circumstances change. Isaac is a successful beekeeper and learned this way. (It was his father who taught him which herbs produce the best smoke. Without clothing, beekeepers need very subdued bees. Isaac harvests in the dark – but not for modesty. Bees are quieter at night.)

In Europe bees are bred for certain traits like high productivity and docility, but African beekeepers rely mostly on wild colonies to populate their hives. “There are no suppliers in much of Africa so it’s all a bit hit-or-miss” said Tom. A colony of bees can be productive or unproductive. They may abandon their nest (abscond), and may be docile or defensive.

Unlike their European relatives African bees abscond regularly. Most hives are empty. Absconding is often due to pests, or to migration (when colonies of bees move to find better forage). “European beekeepers manage their bees, but African beekeepers tend to manage their hives” Tom said. But Isaac Sang is typical in knowing when the bees migrate to and from his area. He uses traditional methods like rumen liquid or tail-fat of sheep to lure bees to his empty hives.

 Honey and development

A few kilos of honey are important to somebody like Isaac. Local prices in Africa are often much higher than world market rates. And demand is high for honey as a medicine, for brewing traditional beer and for paying dowries.

To help African smallholders a number of organisations have tried to introduce western style beekeeping. They have brought modern hives. “Generally this has failed” Tom Carroll said. “A lot of modern beehives are just thrown away”.

 Beekeeping systems

Whether you are a naked Kenyan or a bee-suited Irishman, you will be managing your bees (or at least your hives) within a system.

In Africa your system is based on log, pot or fibre hives. You understand migration and do the things your father taught you to attract the bees. Transport is on foot, the collecting buckets are made of gourds and the smoker is so good that it can sometimes make the bees seem almost friendly. Honey mixed with larvae and eggs is used for making local brew. Isaac Sang stores his clean, ripe honey by sealing it in a hollowed log. It’s used during famine, for healing injuries and treating a whole host of maladies. Some is sold for cash.

In Europe the modern beehives are also part of a system but this is linked with modern beekeeping equipment, protective clothing and tools. There are many opportunities for training and technical support, and businesses can get loans. Beekeepers have access to research. They have transport, a ready market, and supplies of replacement parts for bee hives. Honey is bottled and mostly sold as a food to a ready market.

 Mud and magic bullets

Many development workers have seen the modern beehive as a magic bullet. But the modern hive in Africa is often part of a western beekeeping system used in isolation. The modern hive is not effective among many communities in Africa unless beekeeping development projects address all components of successful beekeeping in Europe. Tom thinks that many African beekeepers have not been lucky. “They’ve got their hives and been wished good luck. But a beehive is just a box” he said. “Many people forget that it’s the system around that modern box that makes it a success in Europe.”

Isaac Sang uses mud all over his body when he goes harvesting. “It protects me from stings” he told me. “I use a lot of mud, especially on my penis” he said. I talked to him in Koibatek near his home in the Rift Valley. We discussed modern beekeeping – beehives, training and extractors. Most of all, Isaac wants a bee suit.


Honey and comb in a tub
A bucket of raw honey. Harvesting and hygiene can be improved by training. Simple processing methods produce a better product, and better income for beekeepers.
Yellow beehives
Discarded modern beehives (in Turkana, Kenya). They were donated by a development organisation. Beekeepers weren’t trained how to use them, or supplied with other equipment needed to make these hives worthwhile.
Beekeeper holding a beehive
A Burundi beekeeper holds an empty beehive that is made from woven sticks covered in fibres cut from banana stems.
Beekeepers at a beehive
A group of Burundi beekeepers demonstrate harvesting a traditional hive. Normally they go at night, with smouldering sticks to subdue the bees.
Beekeeper with pot
Some beekeepers in Ethiopia use pot hives. This one is empty. The bees were destroyed when the family’s kitchen burned down.

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