Beekeeping in Bas Congo - A contribution to sustainable agriculture (2001)
Croft Cottage, Forneth, Blairgowrie,
Perthshire PH10 6SW
Tel 01350 724269
The Bas Congo Region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo lies between the coast and Kinshasa. It covers an area of nearly 55,000km sq. and has an estimated population of 3.9 million. Soils are either deep sand or clay in the districts of Cataractes and Lukaya where beekeeping is practiced and a system of shifting cultivation is used to produce crops of cassava, maize, beans, groundnuts, sweet potatoes, pumpkins etc.
Traditionally areas of bush/savannah are protected from fire until the forest has regenerated and, after a certain number of years decided by the village chief, these are allocated to families for growing their field crops. These patches of forest (called Nkuunku locally in Kikongo) were normally left for between 15 and 20 years but are now more likely to be cut down after 5 or 6 years, because of the shortage of good fallow land. This has led to the invasion of coarse grass species and Chromoleana odorata (Siam weed), which are generally burnt during the dry season and thus prevent any return to forest fallow.
The forest fallow would appear to be the only practical method of maintaining soil fertility and providing the range of non-timber products that maintain rural life in Bas Congo. Unless land is returned to forest fallow after cropping it becomes virtually useless after a relatively short time, and considerable effort is then needed to rehabilitate it.
Honey hunting has been a traditional activity in Bas Congo, as in much of Africa, but beekeeping has only been practiced in the area since the early 1980's. Following an initial trial period, carried out with the help of several Peace Corps volunteers, and funded by Christian Aid, training in bee keeping was provided by the Salvation Army to villagers near Mbanza Nzundu in the Bas Congo region in the early 1980’s. Many of them commenced siting hives near their homes and by 1990 there were nearly 400 bee keepers, each with a hive, producing an average honey surplus for sale of 7.3kg each (Paterson 1991). That figure has now risen to over 1000 beekeepers with a total of nearly 2000 hives and an estimated production of 14 tons of honey. Although there are some beekeepers with up to 40 hives the majority still have only one or two and use the honey sold as a useful source of supplementary income.
The beehive in common use is the Top Bar hive, which has been introduced from Kenya. Hives are always sited in areas of fairly thick bush or forest. Beekeepers choose these areas to provide shade and seclusion and to enable them to get away without being followed by bees after inspection or harvesting. A twisting path leading to the back of the hive, away from the entrance, also helps the beekeeper leave without being followed back home. Incidentally a number of forest plants are also important nectar and pollen sources.
The placing of hives in these forest areas has encouraged villagers to leave the forest for as long as possible particularly where there are a significant number of beekeepers in the village. Where the number of beekeepers is small however, there has been a real clash of interests. One beekeeper told me during a visit in January that his own father had started to cut down an area of bush where he had placed his hives so he went to him and said "if you cut down the trees where my hives are I will not be able to buy medicine for you or support you when you need help". The tree cutting stopped!
Beekeeping has provided additional income to farmers and the return from several hives provides useful income to cover the cost of school fees, clothing and medical expenses. This gives the forest fallow added value. It is not uncommon to find up to ten hives in a hectare of forest yielding from 50 - 100 litres of honey per annum which currently sells at $2 per litre.
Only hives with perpendicular sides are used in Bas Congo, whereas the top bar hive in Kenya has sloping sides. As far as I have seen or heard there has not been any problem with attachment of comb to the sides however. The hives can be up to 1m long, 50cm wide by 30cm deep with top bars 50cm long and 3.2cm wide. A single entrance is cut at one end. The hives are placed on stands made from forked sticks and a cross member. To avoid problems from ants, the ground is kept clear of leaves etc., but this is not always effective. Technically hives could be suspended from wires strung between two trees about 1m from the ground to deal with this problem. The honey badger, which causes considerable trouble in some parts of Africa, does not seem to be present in Bas Congo. The hives are protected from rain with a piece of corrugated metal sheet or occasionally with a roof made from bamboo.
Bees normally enter hives that have been baited with beeswax, though some colonies are dug out of the ground or cut from tree trunks and several of the combs are then tied to top bars in the new hive. However the risk of absconding is always greater if the bees have been transferred manually. Catcher boxes, containing 5 or 6 bars, are sometimes used to attract colonies in particularly suitable sites and then transferred to hives later.
In recent years the shortage and expense of timber and corrugated iron sheet have encouraged people to use alternative materials. The range of substitutes I have seen includes old 200 litre chemical or fuel drums cut in half and their ends removed. The sides are then pushed together until they form an oblong approximately 50cm wide to accommodate the top bars. Plastic basins, old truck fuel tanks have also been converted successfully. Hives have been built with bricks, and these have the additional advantage of being fire proof. Probably one of the cheapest hives seen was made up from raffia palm stems. A wooden hive costs between $10 and $20 and usually lasts 4 to 5 years. Though the palm hive only lasts 2 to 3 years it is easy to replace, being made up locally and the top bars can be simply transferred to the new hive. Top bars are replaced following harvest or inspection as necessary. Instead of using purchased top bars some people use thin straight branches of the correct width, cut from certain trees such as Kinzenze (Holarrhena floribunda). They must however be of exactly the right diameter (3.2cm), not warp and fit tightly one against the other.
Locally made up smokers and overalls are used for inspection or harvesting the hives. These have also become expensive and are often shared by a group of beekeepers. The smokers are made from metal sheeting with bellows from an inner tube and half a bedspring. The coveralls are made from old flour sacks with a square of strong plastic netting sown in to protect the face.
Though average yields of honey are from 10 - 15kg. per hive, yields of up to 35kg have been known. About 1kg of wax is also harvested from the melted down comb after the honey has been allowed to drain out. A cooperative was set up in the late ‘80’s principally to market honey, ensure quality was maintained, supply beekeeping equipment and provide help with management. Unfortunately this has not worked too well, particularly during the recent troubles, and most beekeepers now operate on their own.
The main honey flow occurs in June and July and harvesting takes place in August, though there may be a small flow in November. The chief honey source is from the introduced Siam weed. However a number of indigenous creepers, shrubs and trees are important pollen and nectar sources for maintaining the colony throughout the year. There is often a shortage of suitable forage during the rain season and some of the following are therefore important during that time:
- Chaetocarpus africanus. Common in secondary forest in west and central Africa and into Zambia. It regenerates well in the fallow and soon comes into flower providing both pollen and nectar over long periods in the rain season. The thin branches are used to make brushes in Bas Congo. Poles are used for house building, firewood and charcoal. It is the food plant of Nudaurelia macrothyris an important edible caterpillar.
- Millettia teuzsii A vigorous creeper found in secondary forest and particularly in damp sites in Bas Congo. There is a heavy nectar flow early in the day from this plant. The vines are used for tying cross members in house construction. The plant probably nodulates and is therefore useful in building up soil fertility in the fallow.
- Dialium englerianum The Kalahari pod berry. A very important source of nectar in both Angola and Bas Congo. A tree or creeper reaching a length of up to 15m growing in savannah and on deep sands. It is drought tolerant. The fruit is edible and the wood is used for village furniture. The plant also has a number of medicinal uses.
- Aoranthe cladantha grows in secondary forest and riverine sites. It is also a valuable source of nectar in the rain season producing a mass of fragrant flowers. Two species of edible mushrooms grow on the leaf litter of this tree and it is also the food plant of an edible caterpillar.
- Crossopteryx febrifuga is a major constituent of the savannah bush in many areas of Bas Congo and also grows from Senegal to Sudan and into Zimbabwe. It is a small twisted tree with conspicuous flowers and recovers well from the annual bush fires. It is used for carving and making charcoal and is the only known food plant of an important edible caterpillar (Cirina forda) in Bas Congo. The tree has a number of medicinal uses locally.
- Barteria fistulosa Bees are very much attracted by the flowers of this tree, particularly in the very early morning, just as it is getting light. Though flowering takes place over short periods it is frequently found in flower during the rain season. Red ants are also attracted by the nectar and can often be found in the hollow branches. The tree coppices well and grows back quickly in the fallow. It can be grown from cuttings and is used for stakes, firewood and as a browse. The leaf litter is reported as useful in improving soil fertility.
A number of introduced plants such as Antigonon leptopus, the Coral Vine are also important. This plant provides nectar throughout much of the year.
Fruit trees such as mango, Dacryodes edulis, the safoutier, and the oil palm, are good pollen and nectar sources. The Safoutier, in particular, is commonly grown in the villages for its fruit, which is much, appreciated. It is normally eaten after being boiled for a few minutes.
Finally certain varieties of cassava, which flower over long periods during the rain season, are also important.
In closing I would like to reemphasize the importance of beekeeping as a tool for restoring and maintaining soil fertility in Bas Congo. It provides additional value and income from the fallow period and encourages farmers to leave the forest for longer periods. A number of villagers also plant seed or cuttings of trees, along with their crops so that at the end of the cropping season the forest fallow, rather than unmanageable grass species, return. The introduced Acacia auriculiformis is the species most commonly used, though as this tree has a serious disease problem, several indigenous, fast growing species are also being used.
- Castagne J.B. (1983) L’apiculture au Congo Brazzaville. Bull. Tech. Apicole 10
- Drachoussoff, V. (1947) Essai sur l'agriculture indigene au Bas Congo. Extrait du Bull. Agricole du Congo belge Vol 38: No. 3 & 4
- Nye P.H. & Greenland D.J. (1960) The Soil under Shifting Cultivation 1960 CAB
- Paterson P.D. (1991) Evaluation of the beekeeping component of the agricultural and beekeeping programme of the Salvation Army : Zaire
- Pauwels, L. (1993) Nzayilu N'ti - Guide des Arbres et Arbustes de la region de Kinshasa - Brazzaville. Jardin Botanique national de Belgique
- Thapa & Wongsiri (1997) Eupatorium odoratum: a honey plant for beekeepers in Thailand. Bee World 78 (4): 175 - 178