First published by Beekeepers Quarterly March 2010
At times I think Africa has become a laboratory for development workers experimenting with the lives of poor people. It’s hard not to be cynical when tackling seemingly intractable problems. I worked with development and conservation projects in East Africa for more than 25 years. All around me people were trying to “solve Africa’s problems” with big programmes, little projects, technology transfer, enterprise development, capacity building and so on. A few were successful; a lot have been failures.
Recently I started beekeeping again, in England – and have had time to reflect. I know Africa is still unique. I think this is its strength.
We lived on the Kapiti Plains in Maasailand south of Nairobi. In the far distance, on a clear day, we could see Kilimanjaro; and to the northwest were the Ngong Hills. We were in the middle of nowhere with lots cattle; and zebra, ostrich and gazelle, sometimes giraffe and occasionally lion. We heard hyenas at night and saw aardvarks on our way home after dark. Until we planted and protected seedlings in the compound the only trees on our parched 100acres were metre-high whistling thorns and a few Balanites.
Just as the wildebeest migrated out of the national park when the rains started, we had colonies of bees move into the walls of our house weeks before the rains came. The swarms came from the Ngong Hills, as the whistling thorn began to flower.
In some seasons there were lots of swarms. I bought a couple of top bar hives, a few Langstroths and a log hive. I moved bees from Nairobi to the farm and back again, and I learned a little about beekeeping in Africa.
I also spent time with friends like Tom Carroll who taught beekeeping at a college in the Rift Valley, and began to understand some of the nuances of beekeeping in this part of the world. I worked with Kenyan beekeepers, talked to researchers like Professor Kigatiira and explored ideas with Suresh Raina’s team at ICIPE. Later I became involved with some beekeeping projects, and designed a few myself – ultimately developing some strong opinions of the do’s and don’ts in beekeeping development.
This is what I know. Everything is different in Africa – the seasons, the landscape and environment, the bees, the beekeepers, the pests, the traders and even the honey itself. It makes little sense to promote European style management and equipment for keeping African bees in Africa.
In much of East Africa there are two rainy seasons – typically March to May, and then October and November. As there is no winter the temperatures keep bees active all of the time. If there are flowers (and water) bees can be productive all year round.
Landscapes are huge. Much of Kenya is arid or dryland bush country with pockets of higher land dotted across it. The uplands are forested, and the dryland has little water except along the few permanent and the many seasonal rivers. But habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate. Land is cleared for farming; and charcoal production is taking a heavy toll on indigenous woodland and the natural forage for bees. (Charcoal is the main fuel used for cooking in urban areas.)
In short, the environment is dramatically different to that of the UK. Although bees can be active all year round there is either no forage, or a massive bloom – a cycle of dramatic extremes. Distances are great, and water is often inaccessible.
I learned to live with Apis mellifera scutellata. They migrated to me when I had blossoming plants, and most colonies left again when the flowering finished. Much of the time there was simply nothing for them to feed from. Migration is clearly a normal response to extreme seasonal conditions. They do it themselves rather than rely of human beings to help follow the bloom, and they can cover huge distances.
Scutellata are a little lively at times, especially on hot days or when they have a lot of honey. In the dryland areas bees have to be defensive just to survive. As well as honey badgers, ants and birds, young men with cans of fly spray rob beehives of their honey; and traditional honey hunters were not the only ones digging comb out of tree trunks. Theft and predation are very much part of the life of a colony; and robbing by other insects, birds and animals is probably another reason why they migrate so readily.
Most African beekeepers are poor. They cannot invest, have traditional skills and use basic hives; but their limitations are balanced by their knowledge – knowledge that has been handed down from fathers to sons. Many traditional beekeepers have incredible understanding of the local vegetation, the seasonal patterns, where bees come from and where they go. They know when to harvest, and they know how to harvest (without bee suits, gloves and modern smokers); and they don’t try to make the bees stay during the dry season by feeding them with sugar/syrup. (It’s more important to use money to feed the family, pay school fees or buy medicine.)
I use Commercial and National hives in the UK. Frame hives are great if you have an extractor and a vehicle to shift the supers. Besides, I bought my brood boxes second-hand. In Kenya I couldn’t afford an extractor; and if I couldn’t then most African beekeepers certainly couldn’t either. On top of that it seemed just too much hassle to take off the supers, lug them home, uncap them, extract the honey, lug them back to the apiary and put them back on the hives. Given that you do most of your practical beekeeping as it gets dark (when the bees are more settled) you have to work fast. It gets dark very quickly on the equator, and this is all a lot of hard work at dusk. (And I had a Landrover! A local beekeeper would have to do all that carrying by hand.)
So I harvested from all of my bees in the same way. Even from my Langstroths I brushed the bees off the frames, cut out the combs and chucked them into a bucket. I strained the mashed combs through a fine cloth in a warm place. Cheaper, easier and quicker than centrifuging; and the end-product was just as good. I produced lovely clear honey.
A Langstroth in Kenya costs more than £50 – without foundation. (It’s very difficult to buy foundation.) Given this is more than a month’s income for the majority of rural households, it’s a lot to spend on a removable frame hive that you don’t need if you don’t have an extractor. A top bar hive costs about half that, and a log hive costs perhaps half again. (I put hinges on sections of the wooden wall of my house where bees nested, so I could get at the honeycomb. That was cheaper still.)
I liked the top bar hive most. It is simple to use, easy to hang and cheap to buy. The bees liked the wall of my house or the log hive most, but the top bar hive was a comfortable second. They didn’t seem to like the frame hive very much.
Local beekeepers seem to prefer traditional hives, and most Kenyan honey still comes from log hives. A big problem is hygiene – the mixing of brood comb and honey, the use of metal containers, poor cleanliness and bad storage.
A large proportion of Kenyan honey comes from individual beekeepers not groups. I think the majority of beekeepers around the world are probably fairly happy and comfortable working on their own or with a single colleague. But it’s a feature of development and conservation projects to form people into community groups. Yes, it is better to work with a group for training; and a number of individuals will be more able to negotiate with traders if they bulk-up their honey and negotiate better prices as a collective voice. But in the main group-work is fraught with problems – petty jealousies, undermined trust, inequitable sharing (of work and benefits), and arguments over ownership and responsibility. All get in the way – particularly in something as individualistic as beekeeping.
I think it’s time to move away from trying to give European solutions to African development. Instead of training to replace old skills, providing frame hives, working with groups and promoting new management systems I think beekeeping in Africa should build on what there is and what is known. Help existing, experienced beekeepers to evolve their traditional skills and knowledge by experimenting with ideas and improving hygiene. Encourage people to invest in protective clothing, gloves and smokers. Help experienced local beekeepers to encourage others into beekeeping so they can bulk-up their products and negotiate with traders, protect useful areas of woodland, and network to monitor the migration of bees.
Africa is different to Europe; African bees are different to their European relatives; and African beekeepers have different resources, needs and aspirations to those of their European counterparts. I think we should be positive about this and nurture the differences – and support programmes that recognise Africa is unique.