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Rumba in the jungle

By Christopher Davey

(First published in Beekeepers Quarterly)

“I am Ruasa Charles, beekeeper of Busoni. I want to brief you a song of beekeeping when we are harvesting honey.”

Burundi – equatorial Africa. The air is warm and humid. The rich vegetation deadens sound, and the dull light has the grey gloom of an English winter sky.

We are ten miles from the border with Rwanda. “Rwanda’s got twenty-years of development progress on Burundi; and it doesn’t have a simmering civil war” said Methodi Butoyi, a local development worker in Kirundo. “These people have real poverty. Beekeeping is a useful top-up to their subsistence farming. There is a market for crops and vegetables but they just don’t produce enough of anything to make a living. Beekeeping is useful. Groups can make a few francs from selling honey. Some is used for a local brew.”

Village meeting
Villagers at a meeting; grey skies but cheerful colours

Methodi told the members of Mutsama Beekeepers Association group that I was also beekeeper. Ruasa Charles was delighted. He gave me a hug. His intoxicated smile beamed boyish pleasure to find a brother; and an audience.

Charles and I
On learning I was a beekeeper too …

Ruasa Charles is one of 31 members of the association – seventeen men and fourteen women. “We are improving our beekeeping with modern beehives” they told me. “We still use traditional hives to catch the bees because bees prefer them. We attract the bees and tip them into the modern hives” their chairman said.

Traditional hives are made with a napier grass frame. These are covered with strips of banana stems and banana leaves. Each one costs about £1.50.

Wicker hive
How a napier grass and banana leaf hive is made

Modern hives cost about £23 and beekeepers like them very much. “Traditional hives have to be harvested at night. There are big losses of honey and lots of bees are killed” they told me. “And we aren’t sure if the honey is mature in a traditional hive – we cannot see. After harvesting and making a mess we only get about 5kg. But from a modern hive we usually get 10kgs each time we harvest. The modern hive is good because we can see problems, and see the quality of the honey.” They harvest twice a year.

Traditional hive
Traditional and modern hives under the shade

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