Project Title: Lessons from the field: Building from field experience to improve support for beekeeping in Kenya and Uganda.
Background: ABRC, with funding from an Irish agency, Misean Cara, set out to learn lessons from the reality of beekeeping, under field conditions, in Kenya and Uganda, during 2015 and 2016. Some 53 of the best Kenyan and Ugandan beekeepers were interviewed in depth on their farms, the legacy of 12 beekeeping projects was examined, and key stakeholders were consulted. This free 71 page report details the findings, conclusions and recommendations of the study for beekeeping development in East Africa.
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Julius was proposed as a candidate by the local Ministry of Agriculture because they knew him for many years as an experienced and practical beekeeper. He is a community contact person and has a reputation as someone who loves bees, who earns his income from them, conserves the local environment and encourages people not to cut down trees.
We sat with Julius to discuss his beekeeping enterprise out of the hot tropical sun in the shade of some beautiful indigenous trees. We had traveled out from Kilgoris town that morning. It was perhaps 10 years since we had traveled to Sitoka and major changes to the area were evident. Cornelius and I used to buy honey from Sitoka to supply Baraka Agricultural College. The honey was always some of the best in Kenya – a beautiful yellow colour with a lovely flavour. Julius was a little skeptical of the value of research and the benefits of research to the local community but because we knew him well he was happy to discuss his beekeeping with us.
The last time we had visited the area it was much more cut off and hard to reach. This time around the roads had been graded and land subdivision with barbed wire was evident along the way. Land-use is in transition between pastoralism and settled farming, with trees cut to make way for farming. There is still some wildlife (zebra, antelope and baboons) but their number is diminished. Ten-years ago, lions challenged the night-time groups harvesting honey, but this is unlikely now.
Julius is a married man with two wives and 10 children. Some of his children were still at school while others were grown up and married. Although beekeeping is traditional in Sitoka, Julius learned about beekeeping in 1993 from a GTZ beekeeping programme that was promoting beekeeping in the area. He also visited beekeeping projects in Laikipia, the National Beekeeping Station (Nairobi) and Baraka Agricultural College (Molo) to learn more about beekeeping.
The Beekeeping Enterprise
Julius owns 26 hives: six Kenya top bar hives (KTBH) and 20 traditional log hives. Eleven were occupied bees at the time of our visit. The KTBHs were bought from Baraka Agricultural College and the traditional hives were made locally. Julius also owns a bee suit, a smoker and a hive tool.
Swarms start to arrive from other areas in March, and occupy empty hives. Bees then swarm from local hives in August and September (when Olkinyi (Maasai language), a plant that provides pollen and nectar, has flowered). Swarms move towards an area known as Mugor.
Julius checks his hives every week. This is just an external inspection to look for the presence of ants (and control them), look at the condition of the hives (if they need repair), to check hives are suspended safely, and to see whether they have been vandalized or attacked by wildlife. The honey badger can be problematic. Julius wraps pieces of iron sheet around the tree trunks to prevent badgers climbing to the beehives. Traditional hives are placed in trees.)
Weak colonies are vulnerable to pests. During the dry season, Julius opens hives to check and control hive beetle and wax moth, and to removed empty combs.
He makes regular inspections when flowers are blooming and bees forage for nectar and start making honey. Unproductive colonies are eliminated by opening the hive and allowing the bees to abscond. If swarm cells are present and the queen is old, she is killed, and a good queen cell is left from which the bees raise a new queen.
There are three honey harvests in a year: June/July, August/September and November/December. In the July, prior to our meeting, Julius had harvested 100kgs of honey from his hives.
During the harvesting of KTBHs, Julius ensures that he is properly protected in his bee suit, and has a smoker ready. This however is applicable only to the KTBH. Harvesting from log hives is done traditionally – there is no use of a bee suit as the hive is hanged/placed in trees. You cannot freely climb trees in a beesuit and the traditional method uses a lot of smoke and a minimum of clothing. He harvests and stores honey in clean plastic containers after removing the bees.
After harvesting Julius sieves the honey and packs in plastic jars. He says that this is a more profitable way of selling sell it, emphasising that a quality product leads to a good market and high income. He keeps a sample of honey for teaching and creating awareness about honey.
Honey is also important culturally e.g. in circumcision ceremonies, for making local brew.
There is a market for beeswax.
The income from bees is important to Julius for purchasing clothes, buying household food and for education.
Julius thinks that a good beekeeper is someone who harvests good quantities of quality honey and generates an income from his bees, who owns bee hives and is proud of them, and has passion for the beekeeping work. If he could give advice to his younger self would be to use modern technologies (beesuits, smokers, modern hives) to increase production, and to treat beekeeping as a business.
Julius described some of the challenges confronting him
The local environment is changing. Charcoal burning is destroying large numbers of trees, reducing forage and contributing to bees absconding. The population of bees is declining.
Climate change is affecting the seasons and it not always possible to harvest honey three times each year. This started in 1998, and in 2008 very little honey was harvested due to drought. Rains have become unpredictable, affecting flowering, and drought also causes bees to abscond.
Beehives are vandalised and honey is sometimes stolen.
Acaricides (that farmers use to control ticks on livestock) and pesticides used on vegetable crops are killing bees.
Modern hives like the KTBH are not easily available and are expensive.
There are occasional problems with stinging. Julius mentioned one case in which a farm animal which was stung to death because it was sick and could not run away.
There are challenges in the collective marketing of honey, with individuals selling honey to middlemen at low prices, for cash.
There are five beekeeping groups in the area (Sitoka, Nyakwer, Oloshur, Mogor and Kuyukui). Julius is a member of Sitoka bee group comprising of 15 members, all of whom are men. There is unity among the members and they have planned to market their honey collectively. But there are challenges to group membership, including problems with collective marketing. Collective marketing by groups is based on members selling all their honey together, bulking up so there are adequate volumes to attract good prices from reliable buyers. Julius explained that this strategy is compromised by middle-men buying honey from individuals for immediate cash, at lower prices. When a proportion of beekeepers sell individually they undermine the market because supply is not constant, and volumes are insufficient to attract buyers who travel further and pay more for larger volumes. This has a knock-on effect among the beekeepers themselves. They are reluctant to invest further in beekeeping as hives are expensive, the market is unreliable and prices are poor. This reinforces a culture of sticking to traditional beekeeping methods.
Julius is involved in local conservation efforts such as planting bee forage plants and encouraging people to stop bush burning. He and his fellow beekeepers are not happy about the extent of forest destruction locally.
Key learning points:
Julius seems to be a good beekeeper and an active member of his group; and there are several lessons to learn from him.
He is building his knowledge and skills through observation and experimentation. He understands the seasons and knows that bees migrate from other places at the start of the season, and then some migrate away again later.
He prevents honey badger damage by fixing strips of iron sheets around tree trunks.
He checks his hives weekly for problems in the apiary.
He has a good management system that includes regular opening of hives to:
remove old comb, and keep the hives clean
control wax moth and hive beetle.
get rid of poor colonies
He struggles with some of the local problems of vandalism and honey thefts, and bee deaths from pesticide poisoning.
He is keeping bees as a business:
he has found it profitable to sell clean, well-presented jars of honey,
he sells his beeswax.
He recognises that climate change and the loss of trees is affecting honey production.
He understands that group marketing is a critical issue for profitability among group members, but that short-term financial needs result in members selling at lower prices and compromising development of the group.
A final comment:
One particular thing stands out from this interview – the extent to which the whole area is under serious environmental pressure. In the past ten-years new roads have opened-up the area: livestock is replacing the wildlife; fencing, tree cutting and cultivation are changing the landscape; and pesticides are being used. Although people like Julius are strong advocates for the conservation of their local resources, they need support. This is an area ABRC would like to address, by expanding beekeeping work in Narok, in order to enhance the livelihoods of local people and counteract pressure on the local environment.