The basis for success in beekeeping within development projects (2000)
P. D. Paterson

Bees and Flora
The potential for honey production and success in beekeeping development projects is dependent first and foremost on the quality and quantity of bees and bee flora available. Secondly success is dependent upon the technology used in the light of local resources and economic considerations.

Technology and Economics
Beehive design in itself will not influence honey production provided the hive volume is adequate. Good hive design will make management easier for the beekeeper. A moveable comb or frame hive for example enables detailed hive inspection, colony division or selective breeding and queen rearing as well as providing for ease of honey removal, and in the case of frame hives mechanical honey extractions and return of extracted combs. In the absence of management hive design will not of itself alter honey yields.

Beehive technology may be divided into three groups:

  • Fixed comb hives. These include traditional cylindrical bark and log hives and various other hives of many different forms and materials which are found throughout most of Africa and formerly also in Europe and America. Fixed comb hives also include the traditional straw skeps of Europe.
  • Moveable comb hives. These include the Greek basket hive from which many adaptations have taken place.
  • Frame hives. The frame hive is the most advanced of all hives and is normally used for large scale commercial beekeeping throughout the world. The Langstroth is the original and most widely used but there are countless variations, some are good and some are atrocious.

Choice of hive technology should be based on the cost and ease of hive production and availability in relation to local honey potential and cash return, which vary according to geographical location and temperament of both bees and beekeeper.

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Table 1. Relationship between hive technology, situation and potential returns

Success is likely to be related to choice of technology in relation to existing local knowledge and resources available as indicated in the following table:

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Table 2. Appropriate choice of hive technology

Field Examples
I would like now to take a look at some examples from the field to illustrate success, failure or weaknesses of various beehive systems in differing situations.

In 1994 I was asked to look at beekeeping in the Elburz Mountains of Iran and the areas around the Caspian Sea.

Frame hive beekeeping in Iran has increased since the mid sixties and the 1986 annual report suggested that there were 1.3 million colonies of bees in Iran of which ¼ would have been in traditional hives. Around that period it was suggested that there were about 1m colonies being kept by 40,000 beekeepers with between 12 and 1,000 colonies each. The one beekeeper I saw who was using fixed comb log type hives was having great difficulty due to varroa, which is difficult to eradicate from fixed comb hives. This beekeeper probably rightly blamed the migratory frame hive beekeepers for having introduced varroa to his previously disease free area. Ebadi in Apiacta [25(3):90-96 (1990)] suggest yields of 10 Kg for modern hives and 3 for traditional hives.

Frame hive beekeeping, in this case, was basically a system of migratory beekeeping whereby the beekeepers, usually with some family, moved around the countryside three or four times a year following the floral calendar, camping at each apiary in turn. It struck me that essentially the system was good and that there was an excellent understanding of bee husbandry. The only area I could fault was the rather poor yields that were being obtained and this I put down to gross overstocking. The beekeepers rely for movement of their hives on hired transport, which would arrive on a predetermined day to move the hives in anticipation of honey flows, but these dates take no account of local variations. Each beekeeper owned say one to two hundred hives and primarily because of the transport system they were all put down together in single apiaries when they were moved from one site to another. It was in a sense the old problem of the Masai keeping too many cattle when it only pays to reduce the number of livestock if everyone else does so too. My primary recommendation was that apiaries should be made smaller and hives scattered over a larger area. The Iranians may well have obtained as much honey by keeping fifty hives as a hundred and fifty. However, because their neighbour, within bee foraging range, was also keeping one to two hundred hives plonked down beside him he had to choose to go for the maximum number of hives he could afford. Thus the hive technology was right for the area and its economic parameters. They problem lay in overstocking.

An example of frame hive beekeeping taking over from traditional hives. Success – perhaps but at the expense of the traditional hive small scale beekeeper.

Now I would like to take you to Myanmar where I had the privilege of spending a month in 1991. I was asked by UNCDF to look at a beekeeping project that had been supported by FAO 10 years previously. It was the most impressive beekeeping project I have ever seen. South East Asia has peculiar problems because there are no indigenous honey bees of the Apis mellifera family. Instead there are three different varieties of honey bees, dorsata, cerana and florea. They are suited to the area but do not produce honey in the quantities that mellifera does. The Burmese had managed to establish about ten thousand mellifera frame hives through various parts of the country against considerable odds but they had done it very successfully. I saw many of the apiaries and without exception they were excellent. Once again the only serious fault I could see was the size of the apiaries which held anything up to around a hundred hives and I would have preferred to see them a half or a third of those sizes. I would also have preferred to see more private participation but that seemed to be coming. (Most of what I saw was government orientated with a certain amount of military activity in bees as well. But the system was working.) One apiarist was a marine biologist. His apiary was neat and his sleeves were rolled up. I was also impressed in that the Myanmar project had ten years previously been given eight motorcycles and three trucks. All were still on the road. There was a workshop. The machinery was worn after ten year of hard work but still just in working order. (Could it be the best F. A. O. project ever?). If ever there was a project worthy of further support here was one, but although I understand that a new phase was approved it was alas aborted because of renewed sanctions against Burma.

Examples of successful use with frame hives in Africa
Now I would like to look at frame hives in the Africa context. Frame hives are being used successfully in north Africa, and also in South Africa. In addition they are and have been used intermittently throughout Africa with varying degrees of both success and failure. Smith promoted frame hives, among his other excellent work, in the sixties but despite his team’s extensive work with the Forest Department there is no significant use of frame hives in Tanzania remaining. In Kenya enthusiasts, mostly hobbyists, have used frame hives successfully over many years but on a very limited scale and today there is virtually no frame hive beekeeping except for one outfit Honey Care International which is endeavouring to promote Langstroth frame hives. Uganda is much the same where the long Johnson frame hive did not endure. In Rwanda and Burundi Langstroth frame hives have been used to some good advantage and I have seen some excellent honey. I suspect that the bees are a little tamer in Rwanda and Burundi but even so the use of frame hives is limited and if they were really the answer I would expect to see many more of them there.

In 1983/4 I visited Ethiopia twice where I saw many Zander frame hives apiaries. I give credit to the Ethiopians for having a fair bee programme entirely run by Ethiopians from which they are producing some first grade honey. However the production was very low and the economics hardly worth while. Good records were being kept and from them I can give the following table:

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Table 3: Yields from frame hives in Ethiopia 1980 to 1983

Traditional fixed comb hives were estimated to be producing around 3 to 4 kilos per occupied hive. The traditional bee industry is vast and some of the town markets have honey in the go-downs by the leather sac full.

The apiaries I saw in Ethiopia were in group ownership but all nicely kept and in good condition but the quality of the hive workmanship left a bit to be desired. I do think that once again many of their apiaries were overcrowded at around 40 hives per apiary and I suspect that better results would have been obtained if they had apiaries of ten to twenty hives. Yields were up to 20 Kg.

Virtually all the frame hives I have seen in Africa have been project related in some way or kept by beekeeping hobbyists or enthusiasts, often expatriate. There is no evidence that I am aware of, of frame hives having been adopted by the genuine peasant farmer in central Africa, outside of any project subsidisation. This is I suggest because of the high cost of hives, poor construction and availability and the aggressiveness of the African bee. Frame hives are only going to work to advantage if they are well used and understood. If they are badly made to less than an accuracy of 1/16 of an inch they will be a menace to work with.

Conclusion. On a development project basis frame hives technology has not been satisfactory in central Africa. Frame hives should only be advocated in exceptional circumstances.

Examples of successful use with top bar hives
Top bar hives have no frames requiring an accurate bee space and therefore their construction is much simpler. Only the top bar width needs to be well made and even its width is not very critical so long as there is a good starter guide.

Since the late sixties top bar hives have been widely advocated in many situations in central Africa. Some have been successful but there are many cases where they have not been successful. There are too many apiaries in total neglect, probably because these hives and their use were either never understood or there was some serious fault with them, probably the top bars.

A well made top bar hive in stationary beekeeping can be used in the same way as a frame hive except for mechanical extraction of combs and the return of empty combs to the bees. Migratory beekeeping ideally requires wired frames although I believe traditional hives are sometimes migrated in Ethiopia.

The temperament of the African bee is such that it is not conducive to much manipulation. Thus if a top bar hive is not well made it will not be easy to manipulate the bees - a certain discouragement to their use.

The most serious problem that arises from top bar hives is that the top bars are not working. When they do not work it is a design fault. The original Greek basket hive had top bars that were rounded on the underside and this seemed to encourage the bees to build their combs at the lowest point. The Kenya top bar hive was originally made with a V edge and the bees attached their comb to that pretty well on the whole. The best way of all is a half inch wax starter strip fitted into a saw cut. This is the easiest and cheapest top bar. It does need a little extra work and care to set up the wax strip but such starters are very reliable. Unfortunately there has been a move to make top bars with a ridiculous little wooden protrusion, which is extravagant on wood and is awkward to make. Bees will very frequently not follow the wooden lips even if they have a smearing of wax. Instead of following the length of the top bar the bees build across the bars attaching combs to one or several bars thereby removing all benefit to moveable combs.

Top bars hives do need some management. If they are single chamber, as most of them are, they have limitations in volume and so it is very important that they are harvested regularly and also that excess old or pollen clogged combs are removed so that there is always room for new comb construction. If management is not happening these old combs can block the way for new comb and honey production.

Well managed top bar hives can give good results. One of the best projects using top bar hives, which I have seen, is the one we have heard about in Bas Zaire. I was most impressed. I believe that one advantage on that project is that apparently in this area there is no tradition of beekeeping. This meant that everything started from scratch and the new beekeepers had to learn how to use these hives and were not cumbered with preconceived ideas of how they should work. Another good project I saw was in North West Cameroon where top bar hives were being made from raffia palms, an ingenious way of making a good hive from cheap locally available materials.

A potential of top bar hives, which has not yet been much exploited, is in the use of multi-chamber top bar hives. I have described this in Bee World in an article entitled `A Langstroth Hive with Top Bars instead of Frames.’ Bee World 69(2) 1988. I suggest that this hive is the best of all top bar hives where there is a potential of yields of 15 kilos or more. It has considerable advantages in ease of construction and manipulation especially harvesting.

The conclusion must be that properly done in good conditions there is no question that top bar hives can work very well. Top bar hives which are badly made and carelessly promoted waste a lot of time and resources.

Examples of successful use with fixed comb hives
The mere existence of traditional hives is testimony to their success. These are fixed comb hives and have until very recent times been used throughout the beekeeping world. Traditional hives have the great advantage of being cheap and easily made from locally available materials. The economics are extremely good. The input is time and traditional knowledge and the output is honey and beeswax, normally with no cash outlay. The quality of honey as made by the bees is the same regardless of hive design. The care taken, in harvesting and handling honey by the beekeeper, is what primarily affect quality. Very good quality honey may be obtained from traditional hives. Market forces and price incentive will encourage a traditional beekeeper to produce clean selected honey overnight.

Nevertheless traditional beekeeping is on the decline and in many areas it is not practised to anything like to the degree that it was thirty years ago, if at all. The primary reason for this is theft. Sadly in the more populated areas the only safe place to keep beehives is close to the homestead. Theft moreover is the foremost reason that large scale beekeeping is virtually impossible in most of Africa. A further current problem on traditional hives is that many are made from hollowed out logs obtained from large trees. In much of Africa most suitable trees and forests have now disappeared and it would be a pity for any further ones to be turned into hives. There are however alternatives as demonstrated by the many traditional hives made from woven grass and various fibre materials.

Now in view of such widespread adaptation of very successful beekeeping practises great care needs to be taken in suggesting something better.

Traditional beekeeping works very well in the absence of theft and disease

Marketing is sometimes a problem. Marketing schemes have usually worked best where the beekeepers themselves have been most fully involved whether on a group or individual basis.

There is a lot of scope to encourage small scale honey vendors (who may or may not be beekeepers) to pack and sell honey in locally available containers in recognisable form and places, building up a name for themselves. Training and encouragement of many more small-scale honey packers would lead to greater success in beekeeping.

In the Bas Zaire case clearly some technology needed to be brought into place and it done and successfully.

On a commercially orientated scheme where there was outstanding bee forage and no theft problem I would choose good value frame hives if available.

If traditional beekeeping was working well, I would be inclined to leave it at it is.

If there seemed to be a case for improved technology I would be inclined to go for top bar hives preferably multi chambered.

Fixed comb hives still have an excellent potential. Thus I am very interested in better use and design of fixed comb hives. In particular I have in mind multi chamber fixed comb hives. The classic case of this is the European straw skep. The simplest skeps were single chamber hives. Then the idea came in for use of supers whereby a smaller skep was placed on the main skep which had a 4 inch diameter hole in to top to let the bees go up into the super. In this way the brood chamber need never be disturbed. The principle is that of brood chamber and honey super. King designed a clay hive he called the Omdurman hive in the Sudan. I do not know how many were put into practice or if it ever got off the drawing board but the idea is excellent and should be pursued using whatever material is available. Stephen Adjare has mentioned this principle in his book.

I would like to see more experimentation on this principle using any locally available material. Cement, fibre cement. plastic. corrugated plastic sheeting all have possibilities. The low cost of such hives is very attractive, as is the ease of management. The only draw back is that they do not lend themselves to advanced management but if such management is in fact not happening anyway that does not matter.

One aspect that needs to be born in mind is the place of Varroa in Africa. If this becomes a serious problem it may change the face of beekeeping altogether. Will the African bees be destroyed, if so will this open the way to the propagation of European races?