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Beekeeping - an activity of past and future millennia

The tradition of beekeeping in Africa dates back almost 5000 years when beehives were first used for producing honey in ancient Egypt. The passage of time has seen the spread of beekeeping from Egypt to the Middle East, throughout the Mediterranean and south into tropical Africa. bee at workBut in Africa, very few changes have been seen in these ancient beekeeping methods. Traditional hives are made of wood or clay, as in Egypt, and they have a cylindrical shape with a hole at the front which allows the bees to fly in and out and a detachable section at the back which is used for harvesting honeycombs.

Despite their knowledge of the nutritional and medicinal value of honey and other bee products (see All sweetness and light?), most beekeepers in Africa produce honey for family consumption only and many do not perceive it as a potential income-generating activity. A poor understanding of bee management often leads to the destruction of colonies during the collection of honey. And, due to impurities (wax, bee parts) that result from this type of collection, traders often maintain that this honey is unhygienic and will only pay nominal rates for any excess unprocessed honey that is sold.

However, the potential for beekeeping for income generation is beginning to be realized and NGOs, beekeeping associations and extension services are looking at ways of improving small-scale beekeeping by building on people's knowledge and skills. Use of locally available resources is encouraged and training given to prevent the further destruction of bee colonies, the over-exploitation of particular tree species used for making hives (e.g. Faidherbia albida) and to reduce the risk of bush fires.

In Zimbabwe, beekeepers are failing to supply enough honey for the local market and demand is met by importing honey from South Africa. To strengthen the capacity of rural people to establish small-scale enterprises for producing, processing and marketing honey and beeswax, beekeeper clubs have been established through the Improved Beekeeping and Honey Processing project, which was established by Intermediate Technology since 1997. With the support of Agritex, the Government Agriculture Extension Service, and regional beekeeper associations, training has been provided to rural beekeepers and a centre for honey-processing has been built at Bumba in Chimanimani. At least two other centres in other regions are planned. In some areas, assistance has also been provided to enable traditional beekeepers to buy improved beekeeping equipment.

Although a relatively new concept, the deliberate use of African honey bees (Apis mellifera scutella) for pollination purposes (see also Benefit of Bees), particularly for horticultural export crops, is also being promoted in Zimbabwe. Two hives per hectare have been observed to increase fruit size in Cape Gooseberry by over 40%. Some leading citrus producers are using one hive per hectare for a month because this helps to reduce fruit drop, fruit is more evenly distributed throughout the tree, and both yield and quality improves. A breeding programme to select swarms with desirable traits for pollination purposes, such as docility and virility, has been established for some time.

An International Beekeeping Symposium held in Zimbabwe in November 1999, which focused on beekeeping in Southern Africa, demonstrated that there is a increasing demand for information dissemination and training in improved beekeeping. In regions where rural people have been given assistance, the production and processing of quality honey and other bee products has dramatically increased and yet, demand generally is still greater than available supply. Varroa is known to be present in South Africa and this will present a further challenge to African beekeepers (see also Varroa - a mitey pest of bees). However, production and income generation is being increased and the value of beekeeping in Africa is beginning to be truly recognized. (see also Busy with bees, Beekeeping in Uganda and Keeping the honey flowing)

Information source:
Papers presented at the International Beekeeping Symposium, November 1999. Proceedings to be available from Intermediate Technology, Zimbabwe

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