Would you spend one-month’s salary on a beehive?

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.

Abandoned Langstroth Hives
Sopel bee group in Turkwel, Kenya. The group complained that they had a honey marketing problem, but a field visit showed that few hives in the apiary were actually in production.

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.

Log Hive, Kitui, Kenya
A typical log hive. This one is in Kitui ditrict, Kenya and is the predominant hive in the area. There seems little need to introduce anything else at the moment.

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.

Apiary of Langstroth hives in Koibatek, Kenya
A nice looking apiary of Langstroth hives in Koibatek, Kenya. The apiary was productive when supported by Baraka Agricultural College staff, but more recently the beekeepers have harvested little or nothing.

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.

Comb on a top bar.
Comb on a top bar.

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.


Looking into a log hive
Looking into the end of a log hive. The comb is built across the hive which makes it easier to cut out. This photograph was taken in Kiamunyi, near to Nakuru. The owner didn’t managed to harvest this as someone else beat him to it! Yes, theft is a serious problem for beekeepers. Honey has a high value, averaging 176Ksh (about £1.50) per kg in Nakuru (2007 figures).

13 thoughts on “Would you spend one-month’s salary on a beehive?

    1. Dear Lawrence – I hope the reply to Harrison above helps. Please post if you have a specific question on hive designs. Thanks, Admin.

  1. Hi

    Your article is informative especially for starters like me.Am in the process of starting an commercial apiary that will consist of 20 CAB hives.I’ll be starting my training soon before setting up the apiary.What’s your take on this CAB hives.

    1. Hello Harrison

      Many thanks for your question. This is an interesting subject.

      It is difficult to make decisions about which hives to buy. If you want to set up beekeeping to make money you need to
      1. keep your costs to a minimum, but
      2. buy equipment that allows you to manage the bees in the way that you want.

      What I mean is this: You can spend a lot of money on frame-type hives like the Langstroth or CAB. If you want to manage your bees intensively and inspect the brood chamber regularly (taking the frames out of the deep box) you need a frame hive. And a frame hive also allows you to use a centrifugal extractor to spin the honey out of the frames of comb.

      But if you will leave the bees to get on with things themselves, and only harvest the honey and extract it by mashing the honeycomb and straining out the wax through a fine cloth, then an ordinary top bar hive is enough. You don’t need such complicated equipment.

      If bees are left to get on with things themselves, the frame hive is likely to produce the same amount of honey as the top bar hive. It’s the bees that make the honey, not the hive. One more point … there is also the difficulty of preventing wax moth and other pests from destroying frames and foundation in a Langstroth-type hive.

      Thinking about money – each frame hive will cost about four times more than a top bar hive. To make this investment worthwhile you will need to buy (or borrow) an extractor as well. And then, each year, you will also need to buy some new wax foundation for making up new frames.
      There is no easy answer to choosing which hives to use (unless you have lots of money in your pocket and can buy the best, no matter what sort of beekeeping system you adopt). You need to decide what sort of beekeeping you want to do AND ARE ABLE TO DO – the intensive type or the less intensive. Only when you have thought about this can you decide what hives you need to buy.

      Thank you

  2. Quite resourceful info!

    Just bought a hive and am very excited as i go to erect it.
    which are the recommended sources of bee forage???

    1. Hello Albert, Thanks for your comment and congratulations on your beehive. Please tell us where you are located – which Country and region and we might be able to give some more advice on bee forage. Thanks, Admin

  3. I am a new resident in Gallapo, Manyara Tanzania. Where can one buy the tools/equipment and protective clothings used in beekeeping?


    1. Hello Nicholaus, Thanks for your message. I am not familiar with your area. The best way to find out is to go and talk to your local agriculture or livestock extension officer as to where the nearest supplier of bee equipment is. I am sure they get questions like this all the time and will be ready to help. Please post how you get on. Thanks.

  4. hello, am a prospect beekeeper in Njombe and i need to be trained on the subject, how can i get trained.

    Thanx for the resourceful article.

  5. I am a new farmer in bee keeping. I need to buy all equipment pertaining to bee keeping and safe and hygenic harvesting.

    1. Hello Doris – thanks. There are many suppliers and it depends on where you live. Please go to your local Ministry of Agriculture office and ask for local bee equipment suppliers in your area……

  6. I am building modern log hives in Zambia. Basically a long box of 30 mm thick planks, internal dimensions about 35cm by 35 cm,and 95cm to 1.2metres long. Then we hang them high on metal hooks. I quite agree with you that log hives are here to stay!

  7. I like the comment : it is the bees that make the honey,not the hive! Modernity has its limits!
    By by

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