Fundamental thoughts on african bee farming (2001)
Olivier Field

Many years ago one of the most delightful Africans that I have ever met, came and stayed with me to learn Bee Farming. His name was Negash. He came from Ethiopia and was about forty years of age. On the first day out together we set off into the English countryside and he looked with wonder at the fields full of sheep and cattle. "Are they all shut up for the night?" he asked.

"Of course not," I replied with surprise.

"Well don’t you get trouble from Hyenas?" was his next question.

When we reached the first Apiary he saw my bee hives all neatly set on stands some two foot off the ground, he looked at them aghast, "Surely Mr. Field the Hippopotamus will knock them over in the night!".

All too often Consultants travel abroad with no idea of the real problems that will confront them when advising in a foreign land. Just as Negash was unable to understand U.K. farming when first confronted with it, so we also on our side fail to fully appreciate the problems of Africa.

It was that same good friend Negash, who pointed out to me the follies of European Bee Keeping in Africa. I was with him in the Ethiopian Forest region, when he turned and said, "I think that you Europeans have got it wrong, African Bees do not like Honey Supers." We sat in his little hut in the forest and discussed the problem. He had some thirty Langstroth Hives, all set up with aid from Sweden, each with a super on it, but the bees were not working up into any of them.

It was at that moment some fifteen years ago that it dawned on me that there was a fundamental difference between the working of African bees and the working of temperate zone bees. The one thing that European bees need to do most of the time is to keep warm, so they will expand their brood nest in a vertical direction so as to work up into their own heat, like the rugby ball sitting on its point. On the other hand the main problem that African bees have is to keep cool, they wish to expand their brood nest in a horizontal direction so as to keep their brood cool. They will build a brood nest like the rugby ball on its side. For this reason the Kenya Top Bar (KTB) Hive has been very successful, but it will not create a situation from which a modern honey farm can be built.

The use of a wired frame is paramount, so we have to adapt the Langstroth hive to the situation in Africa, and with this thought in mind Negash tried out a Long Langstroth body with some eighteen frames running on the horizontal plane. It worked very well; it could be managed from the rear, full frames of honey could be taken away and empty ones returned, frames of bees and brood could be taken away and new hives made up. Finally there was less disturbance of the bees, which in Africa is very important.

If we are to set up sustainable Bee Farming in Africa, we must take this step forward from the KTB hive to a Long Langstroth hive, but with aid at a premium and little of it available another step must be taken. Hives must be made in Africa. I have travelled widely across that Continent and the carpentry skills that I have seen are very good.

Why spend precious aid money in shipping costly European hives to a country where they are not the right shape and cost an arm and a leg to have made, then import them through very expensive Customs Departments which double the cost on arrival in the country. A hive made in country will be a sixth of the price of a hive imported. I have already had hives made in Cameroon and they come out very favourably against the KTB hive. Hives made in country create work in country!

An imported hive will cost close to a hundred pounds and when shipped a hundred and fifty pounds. Import duty could add another fifty pounds. A hive made in the Cameroon will cost 26,000 CFA (UKP 26). A KTB hive will cost 20,000 CFA (UKP 20). The hive will work just as well as the imported hive, in fact it will work better and with a Long Langstroth we will be able to produce more honey which can be extracted with a centrifuge and can be fit for the export markets of the world.

We will also be able to make up increase of hives by the removal of brood combs and so check swarming. Finally we can feed the bees with the use of local sugar cane chopped up and boiled to give a feed at the end of the season after the honey crop has been taken.

I am sure that a large part of the so called "Absconding Problem" of the African bee is brought about by over-robbing the colony at the time of the harvest. With the wired frame we are able to return an empty comb after extraction into which sugar syrup can be stored by the bees if they are given a plastic bag of boiled sugar cane liquid after harvest. Then at the beginning of the next season there will be far fewer empty hives, and far less of the cry "The bees have absconded!".

The more consultants learn about the problems of the bees that they are going to work with, the better they will understand the way forward and the less aid money will be needed or wasted! A step forward with the African bee can be taken and I believe that with the setting up of Centres of Excellence in countries where Long Langstroth hives can be made and operated will be the best way to go forward.