Building resilient and sustainable beekeeping: Lessons from Africa

Globally, honeybees are under serious threat. These important pollinators are affected by issues of nutrition, habitat loss, pesticides, a changing climate, pathogens and an economic system that lacks ecological accountability.

Honeybee [Apis mellifera] populations are also being wiped out by Colony Collapse Disorder, caused by a cocktail of debilitating factors. Industrial-style beekeeping practices are making this worse. Since the condition was first reported in 2006, it has killed tens of millions of honey bees.

Bees compromised by the effects of the disorder are most vulnerable to the deadly varroa mite. In many commercial apiaries the parasite is controlled by chemical intervention. Chemicals plus the pathogens carried and introduced by varroa destructor increase the stress bees are facing.

Research by the Honeybee Genome Sequencing Consortium suggests that Apis mellifera is especially vulnerable because it “has fewer genes for innate immunity” and fewer genes for production of “detoxification enzymes”.

Yet the species is faring far better in many African countries than elsewhere. One of the reasons for this may be the continent’s deeply embedded indigenous knowledge and traditional beekeeping practices. In a 2012 report, for instance, the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation acknowledged that: “The main region of the world where traditional beekeeping practices are still the most widely used – tropical, sub-Saharan Africa – is also the region with [the] least honey bee disease problems”.

The prevalence of wild bee colonies on the African continent also helps bees to remain healthy. These populations provide genetic diversity which mitigates some ailments.

Wild bees provide many lessons. Left to their own devices, for example, bees will apply an organic sheath, the propolis envelope, to the inside walls of their hives. The propolis envelope, consisting of plant gums with anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties, protects the entire community even if individual, innate immunity is weak.

Bees for development are of the view that bees naturally would look for any cavity and live in so the type of hive [modern, traditional] does not really matter. They believe that to understand sustainability and beekeeping, we must see beyond the hive – and keep in mind the basic needs of the bees. There is no such thing as the perfect hive. All have disadvantages and advantages. The key is choosing the one most appropriate for a specific context.

The advantages of locally-made fixed-comb beehives [local style hives] over the top-bar or the frame hives are many. First, anyone can make one or more – so beekeeping becomes accessible to even the poorest. Secondly, this is more sustainable approach – as it reduces donor dependency.

Thirdly, it reaches more people – a relatively low investment of resources can reach many people. Fourthly, it is scalable which means once people know how to make hives they scale-up at a rapid pace if they wish. Finally, fixed-comb hives are proven to be more practical, sustainable and successful

In addition, deducing from Neil Rusch’s academic work on indigenous knowledge and his 15 years of working as a commercial apiarist, he set out to create a man-made hive that would support the bees’ own behaviour and biology. The result is the Agave log hive. “I believe we should recognise, as is starting to happen, how indigenous knowledge and management can strengthen ecological integrity”, he stated.

“We don’t know exactly when foraging wild honey gave way to harvesting honey from hives. What we do know is that “possesion” of wild bee colonies was a likely precursor to ownership of livestock during the past 2,000 years in southern Africa. Today, all manner of natural, locally available materials are used on the continent to construct bee hives”, he added.

Traditionally beekeeping in African countries is not about job creation, as it tends to be elsewhere. Neither does it conform to agro-industrial practices and mindset. Rather, it is primarily about supplementing rural livelihoods. The emphasis is on community needs.

For example, beekeeping traditions in Ghana among the people in the northern part of the country keep bees in pots and log hives. Recently Bees for Development Ghana has reintroduced local style hives made from locally available materials (Borassus, palm fronds, bamboos, forest ropes, etc.) to honey hunters in the Afram Plains North.

These people live on the fringes of Digya National Park and have been causing diverse destructions to the forest reserve. This project aims at promoting sustainable beekeeping in Kwahu Afram Plains, Ghana, to alleviate deprivation.

Also in central Cameroon [among the Gbaya people] this traditional way of keeping bees play an integral part in their culture. Detailed knowledge of the natural environment and specific hive-building skills, which tap into older practices, are demonstrated.

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Beekeeper in Gbaya, Cameroon

Similarly, account can be given about the Mount Elgon region of Uganda where many women have been keeping bees in low cost hives made from local materials. Bees for Development is working with the Mbale Coalition Against Poverty [Mbale CAP] to change the way land is managed, through sustainable beekeeping. They are helping to train farmers to make their own low-cost beehives and set up profitable homestead apiaries which can be integrated into forest plots.

Ugandan Beekeepers in Mount Elgon region

Additionally, the Yiaku [former hunter-gatherers living in Kenya’s Mukogodo Forest] are another example – they practise log hive tree beekeeping along with a successful system of forest management.

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These examples illustrate evidence of sustainable outcomes, some of them have been maintained over centuries whiles others have been reintroduced.

These interesting knowledge informed the conception and development of the Agave log hive by Neil Rusch. He said: “An example I drew from this study was the San people’s understanding of bees. Archaeological evidence suggests that honey was being consumed and bees’ wax used by early people 40,000 years ago at Border Cave in South Africa. The San and their ancestors are the First People of southern Africa. Mythology and rock paintings of bees and honey-hunting attest to their intimate relationship with bees”.

According to Neil, the San people, when speaking about bees, say: “The bees, when the bees fly along in a body, they the Bushmen say, the bees go. One bee it is that which goes”.

Taking bees as a body, Neil said in his write up: “I thought about bees as a body, and the hive as integral to the health and wellbeing of the bee body. From there, I asked what a body needs to remain alive and healthy. Three important considerations in the design of the Agave log hive are immune system, thermoregulation, moisture and humidity regulation. When the atmosphere in a hive is optimal bees will survive and thrive”.

The space bees choose to occupy has a direct bearing on their reproductive biology – a volume of 40 litres is ideal. Bees reproduce by swarming. They do this when the space they occupy becomes overcrowded, so hive space influences reproduction.

Hollowed out Borassus or Agave logs or basket hives covered with clay have the ideal volumes and natural insulation; this aids temperature regulation and reduces unnecessary energy expenditure. The rough inner texture of the log encourages propolis collection. Here you would usually find that the bees begin gathering propolis immediately to create the propolis envelope in the local style hives.

According to Bees for Development the proof of this concept has been tested over years. During this time the process for developing the hives has been shared with others in practical workshops in Ghana, Uganda, Cameroon, Ethiopia and other places. These local style hives have yielded encouraging results.

According to Neil’s study, colony build-up over eight to 12 months allows sufficient time for the colony to reproduce a swarm. This aspect is most exciting since a key aim of his project was to provide habitation from which bees can issue forth to rewild the environment.

Similarly, Bees for development Ghana has charged beekeepers in Ghana to make bee-houses from Borassus log for wild colonies to reproduce swarms that will later fill their hives.

Local style hives [log or Basket hive] can be introduced into traditional beekeeping contexts seamlessly since it does not violate existing cultural norms and practices, either in its form or its supporting philosophy.

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