Bees - all sweetness and light?
Beekeeping, or apiculture, is a traditional occupation of many communities worldwide, but practices of harvesting honey are often inefficient (the colony may be destroyed) and honey gathering from the wild may be dangerous (wild bees are often aggressive) and even unsustainable. However, bees have perhaps the most potential of all minilivestock activities and much is being done in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands to develop the practice of sustainable and improved beekeeping, which has been shown to increase a farmer's income by up to 50% under favourable conditions. It also requires little capital outlay, a small area of land, and is not labour intensive. It is particularly well suited as an income generating activity for women, young people, and the landless.
Honey hunting in Malaysia is a lucrative business: expeditions into the rainforest can bring in
$300-600 a day. But Malaysia only produces 3% of its local honey requirements; the remainder is
imported from Australia, China and the US, even though local honey, usually at a higher cost, is
preferred. Honey and wax are both widely used in medicine, as health food, and for traditional
crafts such as candle making and batik. To promote beekeeping, Malaysian researchers have developed
technologies and methods to encourage small rural farmers and landless peasants to produce a
greater amount of locally produced honey. Technologies developed include methods for: hive
management using movable frames mounted in wooden boxes to control production of honey, wax and
pollen; control of pests and diseases; treatment and storage of honey; and breeding and rearing of
queens. A system for rearing bees under coconut trees has also been developed although bees can
also be kept under coffee, pineapple, star fruit and rubber trees, as well as in orchards. The
pollination activities of the bees help to increase crop yields. A beekeeping manual has also been
produced for semi-literate readers and training has been made available. Currently, 1,000
Malaysians, who are mostly farmers with little or no land at all, maintain about 5,000 bee
colonies. Net income from honey sales has been found to be over $1,000/yr.
An experienced and innovative apiculturist in the Philippines is using high technology to produce over 10kg of honey from each of his 700 hives. Mr Joel F. Magsaysay has developed improved honey extraction units and a special design of beehives, more suited to the hot, humid and rainy conditions of Asia, to produce a range of high value bee products. These include ripe, unfiltered honey, natural bee pollen pellets, raw propolis, fresh royal jelly, bee wax, honey cider-vinegar, honey wine and bee venom. Special techniques have also been developed to extract the bee venom which is used for arthritis-related problems and blood cancer. The technique involves exciting the bees by generating static electricity to make the bees sting a plastic board. The venom is then allowed to dry in the shade and scraped off as a powder. 1g of bee venom can be sold for over US $100 in China.
Mr Magsaysay mainly uses European bees, as they are more docile, more productive and easier to
breed and manage than Asian bees. European bees also produce propolis or 'bee-glue' which
is lacking in Asian beehives. However, this pioneering beekeeper in the Philippines has also gained
considerable experience with Asian bees and is working towards making them more productive and
profitable. In addition, work is being done on 'Trigona' or stingless bees, which produce
small amounts of highly valued honey used for medicinal purposes. Mr Magsaysay's bees are
contracted by many orchard growers and seed producers to pollinate crops and increase yields. He is
also keen to help small farmers to take up beekeeping and he will supply nuclear bee colonies and
starter sets and provides training for those interested in apiculture.
In East and Southern Africa, farmers are being assisted by ICIPE to take up apiculture. Problems with handling African bees, which are notorious for their aggressiveness and their tendency to swarm, are being resolved by developing and improving queen-rearing techniques. The modern Langstroth hive, which allows a 3-5 fold increase in honey production, is being distributed and filled with bees genetically selected for desirable traits such as gentleness, fecundity and productivity. This 10-frame hive, developed in America, allows honey to be harvested cleanly through centrifugation without destroying the combs, which can then be reused. This saves time and labour and is more efficient than using traditional African log hives. The use of the Langstroth hive also allows easier colony multiplication and harvest of other hive products, including royal jelly which sells on the world market for US$70-100/kg.
National and international outlets for marketing of high-quality honey have been established and over 3500 individual farmers from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea have received training from ICIPE in these improved beekeeping techniques. Income from participating farmers has increased from 40-60% and the project is currently being extended to 11 other countries in eastern and southern Africa.
In Uganda, beekeeping is becoming a particularly popular activity amongst women, where several organizations exist to give advice on management of bees and marketing of the honey.
Most beekeepers, men and women, still catch their bees from passing swarms during the dry season using an empty hive placed high in a tree. To attract the bees, a piece of old wax comb is placed inside the hive or the slats are rubbed with beeswax. The hives used may still be of the traditional style which are inexpensive and easy to make: a hollow log or a roll of bark, which is sealed at the ends with raffia. However, these hives have to be destroyed in order to harvest the honey. So many beekeepers are now adopting top-bar hives (e.g. Kenyan top-bar hive), which can still be made from local wood, but have to be constructed with precision to ensure the correct bee space. With these hives, better management of the bees may be achieved as they can be checked periodically and they also enable the rearing of queen bees to extend the bee colony.
For those people with little land, bees are often kept close the house so beekeepers are advised to keep more docile species, but if they have to rely on the wilder, more aggressive bees, ornamental plants can be planted around the apiary. These are chosen for their ability to provide nectar but are also allowed to grow tall to force the bees to fly up high and away from human habitation. For those with more land, beekeeping is ideal for integrating into other farm activities. The hives can be moved to where crops are in flower to provide nectar for the bees and to pollinate the crops. Beekeeping is particularly suited to remote areas where the distance from market and the bulkiness of some products may make the selling of many agricultural commodities non-profitable. However, all bee products command a good price and all can be sold far from their point of origin.Further info on bees:
International Bee Research Association (IBRA)
Beekeeping in Africa, FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin 68/6
Beekeeping in Asia, FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin 68/4