Beekeeping update from SW Tanzania

The question of the day at all training sessions is always, “How much honey will my hive produce?” This sounds like a logical question but there are so many factors involved that it is difficult to give an accurate answer. What was the size of your swarm when it entered the hive? What’s the quantity of nectar-bearing flowers in the area? Is there a water source present? How many pests are around and active at that site? (My hives situated over sandy soil always struggle more with pests than hives situated over clay soils due to many of the beetles that breed in sandy soil).

Catching swarms is the only available way for most African beekeepers to increase the number of colonies they have.  When a swarm enters your hive you have no way of knowing the bees’ traits. You have strangers in your house…you have never met them before and are not sure what they are like. Will they be friendly, easily worked or vicious? Will they produce lots of honey during a nectar flow or focus on brood rearing? So, I think that we can give people figures of what a hive is capable of doing but there are too many factors involved to give them a figure of what it will do.

Harvesting honey
Harvesting bees in SW Tanzania

Here are some of our more recent figures: There was an amazing nectar flow in SW Tanzania in the year 2013! Out of the 50 top-bar transitional beehives from which we harvested in May, 46 were occupied.  23 of these hives produced 10 kilograms or more of honey.  A few produced as little as 2-3 kilograms. Five hives produced none but showed a strong brood chamber. Two had bees but they were very weak and looked like they had recently swarmed several times due to the many opened queen cells on the bottom of the comb. These hives varied in size but most were the size of typical top bar hive with 20-25 bars. One of the hives had a black mamba under the corrugated tin roofing attached to the lid! That was exciting.

Total honeycomb collected was 1,019 pounds or 463.18 kilograms. Once the comb was pressed we were left with 700 pounds or 318.18 kilograms of liquid honey. The honey, which was water white-blonde in color, was bottled and packaged attractively with a classy sticker on the bottle and sold retail.

Simple processing
Simple and clean honey processing – no need for expensive equipment!

Total income from the sales was $2,700 US dollars (Eds Note:  which is a considerable amount of money in Tanzania where the average annual income per head is about $500).  A rule of thumb…the lighter the color of honey the better the price and the faster it will sell.  After paying for the containers, printing, labor and boxes, we were left with around $2,200 US dollars. It costs around $40 dollars to make one of our hives.  We were able to pay off our 50 hives at that site, even the ones that did not produce honey, and were left with a profit of $200 dollars. However, even though we were able to pay off our hives, there was a lot of other equipment that we had to purchase to succeed in the harvesting work, such as suits, smokers, buckets of various sizes for harvesting, latex gloves, and plastic gate valves for attaching to settling buckets.

Honey color
Light honey has greater value in the local market than dark honey

We did not harvest again until May of 2014. There is only one substantial flower bloom a year but due to desirable honey color, we like this area for beekeeping.  A group of teenagers vandalized 27 of the 50 hives. The leader was caught and punished. The hives were rebuilt and put back in the field. The harvest was poor due to the destroyed hives. The thing that is most hurtful about situations like these is not the loss of equipment but rather the loss of the strong colonies we had been cultivating in these hives. It takes a year to build a strong colony and a strong colony can produce well for many years.

This year we have employed a friend who has been hanging the hives and visiting them. In our area it is difficult to leave the hives on stands due to cattle, brush fires, and people tampering with them. Therefore they are hung in trees. It has gone very well. We have increased the number of hives we have out and local people are starting to respect our hives. It is highly important to have someone who checks on your hives on a weekly basis. James, the fellow who tends our hives, receives a portion of the income upon harvesting our honey. The more honey we harvest the more compensation he receives.  We also bought a bicycle for him to use when checking the hives.

One thing that has been very helpful for us is that in each area where we have apiaries, we hang one of our hives on an inexpensive kilogram scale. It is this hive that tells us when the other hives are ready to harvest. As the nectar flow progresses the hive on the scale becomes heavier and heavier. Once the nectar flow is at an end, the hive stops growing heavier. It is then time to harvest from all the hives in that area, as all the bees there are using the same nectar source. It has proven to be a good measuring device for what is happening inside the hive without having to suit up.

Hive on a scale

Ted Rabenold’s hive has gained 13 kilograms in the past 2 and a half weeks. This is a sure sign that the hive has honey stores in it. It is also a sign that any other hives in that area are also ready to harvest.

I will send a report on the 2015 May harvest. Thanks for keeping up with our work in SW Tanzania.

Sincerely, Ted Rabenold,

Development Director and Head Beekeeper Trainer,

Tree of Life

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Ted for contributing the above article on his work with Beekeepers in Sumbwanga and we look forward to future updates on progress there.  

Ted can be contacted at:

PO Box #466 Sumbawanga, Tanzania

5 thoughts on “Beekeeping update from SW Tanzania

  1. We have group that deal with bee keeping but we have limited skills and honey market.
    We would like to request assistance and partnership at Liwale district Tanzania
    0713 512938

    1. Moses, great to hear about your start up project in Liwale district. What kind of hives do you have? How long have they been in the field? Are there any experienced beekeepers working with you? There is an enormous market for well processed, quality honey in Africa. There is no need to look outside for a market! All our 820lbs of honey we harvested last May-June sold in less than two months here in Tanzania. Be sure to follow the process of getting your TBS (Tanzania Bureau of Standards) sticker as soon as possible once you start producing a quality product.

      You are doing well in the forming of a co-op of African beekeepers. There is strength in numbers as you order jars for bottling honey and beekeeping equipment. Start with a single size top bar hive as you will enjoy the simplicity of that hive in your new work.

      Best wishes. Sincerely Ted Rabenold

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