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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Modern hives or modern ideas?

  • Bee hives
  • Lowore J. and Bradbear N.
  • Bees for Development Journal Issue 90
  • 30/11/2008
  • Article
  • English
  • Bees for Development Journal Issue 90
    Text on this website and PDF to download

  • bfdj-90-modern.pdf

Modern hives or modern ideas Janet Lowore and Nicola Bradbear Bees for Development Keywords: Africa; African honey bee; beekeeping project; honey; income generation; management; poverty alleviation Bees for Development as observed that many beekeeping projects in tropical Africa place emphasis on so-called 'modern' hives and yet the results of such projects are often poor:hives are provided but the impact on poverty alleviation is negligible. We have witnessed projects in Ghana Malawi The Gambia Uganda and Zambia and many other countries where beneficiaries report no benefit as a result of receiving bee hives. A study undertaken by Lohr (1998) reported that 75% of evaluated beekeeping projects had a low impact. The frequency of failed bee hive projects has led Bees for Development to consider why projects persist in focusing on hive delivery against evidence that this approach rarely brings long lasting or significant benefits. The answer involves three main factors:

  • Poor situation analyses lead planners to believe wrongly that bee hives are the key intervention point for commercialising apiculture;
  • The types of hives promoted by beekeeping projects are often inappropriate for the context in which they are placed;
  • Planners and donors favour certain types of projects especially those that are easy to administer and provide tangible evidence of their support.

To examine these factors

Poor situation analysis

Beekeeping is traditional throughout tropical Africa and is considered a safe subsistence activity which is low input low output low risk resilient to shocks and ultimately sustainable. Interestingly African beekeeping is proving more sustainable than European beekeeping. In Europe honey bees no longer survive in the wild and only live with the help of beekeepers to control Varroa. However safe and sustainable does not necessarily lead to wealth creation and poverty reduction. Throughout Africa it is strongly believed that farmers should become more commercial. Commercialising the dairy industry is shifting away from traditional breeds and extensive pastoralism towards new breeds and stall feeding. Commercialising agriculture means growing cash crops and investing in technologies like tractors and refrigerated trucks. Many people assume that commercialising beekeeping necessarily calls for a change in the technology and to use 'modern' hives.  In fact this is incorrect. It is possible for subsistence-level beekeepers to become more commercially orientated although such a transformation is not dependent upon the choice of hive. The basis of commercial agriculture is enterprise analysis - working out the costs of production and ensuring profitability. A local style hive beats a frame hive in any profitability analysis and there is no evidence proving that frame hive beekeepers in sub-Saharan Africa harvest greater total volumes of honey than beekeepers with local-style hives. What about quality? First we must accept that the honey bees in a frame hive and a local hive are exactly the same feeding on the same flora in the same place and making identical products. So we know the raw product will be the same. What differs is the means of extraction and sometimes post harvest handling. It is true that some traditional beekeepers have very careless methods of harvesting and offer low quality products to the market. However closer analysis shows that the market into which they sell accepts the standard of their product. A promoter of commercial apiculture tends to look to the supermarket as the end point for honey: they correctly observe that the quality demands of a supermarket shelf are different from those of village markets. Many other changes need to take place for subsistence beekeeping to transform to a commercial activity. Correct situation analysis should reveal the need for:

  • Skills in harvesting and post-harvest handling to ensure quality products;
  • A market for the honey;
  • Market access;
  • A profitable system whereby costs are less than income;
  • A business approach.

Making the transformation from subsistence to commercial beekeeping requires many changes - although the bee hive is not necessarily one of them and on its own will not ensure greater profitability. Many hive delivery projects fail because they are not addressing the true problems.

Are the right hives being used?

Some types of hives promoted by projects fail in the context in which they are placed. Frame hives fail or are unsuitable for four main reasons:

  • They are too expensive;
  • They are not particularly suitable for African honey bees and their environment;
  • They are only viable when associated infrastructures and inputs are accessible;
  • Often beeswax is the primary tradable bee product and yet large volumes will not be harvested from frame hives.

Cost benefit analyses showing that a beekeeper can pay back the cost of a frame hive after a number of years are usually based on figures taken from a book and not from real field data. Svensson (2002) reports on the failure of beekeeping projects developed on the basis of poor analysis and false projections. Furthermore even if the beekeeper could pay back after say four years they do not have the money to buy in the first place - without entering into a debt situation which is rarely desirable or safe. In a paper describing the success of the producer owned company North Western Bee Products in Zambia Wainwright 2002 reported: "It would be difficult to manage the African bees in these [frame] hives. Most importantly the high capital cost of the hives would burden the beekeeper with debts he would be unable to repay". Giving out free hives is never sustainable. Frame hives enable combs to be inspected and replaced in the hive. Yet African bees are quick to abscond when disturbed so that the colony manipulation and inspection that a frame hive allows often leads to the loss of the colony. Furthermore most beekeepers do not wish to and have no need to inspect or manipulate the colony. Frame hives are not built to exclude or withstand the predators found in sub-Saharan Africa - ants beetles honey badgers lizards and termites to name just a few. The frame hive is not a stand-alone technology and makes sense only when the beekeeper has access to a centrifugal extractor and can purchase replacement foundation for the frames. Centrifuges are expensive and commonly therefore one is situated at a central location. This means that the beekeeper must transport the box full of frames to the centre expensive time consuming and dusty for extraction. He/she is then faced with the problem of how to return the empty supers to the hives. The emphasis on honey harvest is often misplaced. The African beeswax trade has delivered income benefits for many traditional beekeepers for decades and the world demand for clean beeswax is growing. The opportunity to increase incomes through selling beeswax may far exceed that of the honey trade and frame hives do not deliver beeswax in the required volumes. One beekeeper said: "I was advised to provide foundation for my bees because then they can spend more time and energy making honey and I can get more honey more quickly for selling."His neighbour replied: "All bees need comb to put the honey in. If they make it themselves it costs me nothing. If I have to provide foundation I have to take money out of my pocket to buy it; I would rather the bees made it for themselves for free", (LOWORE J. 2008 Personal communication Kamwenge Uganda). Given the above why do projects continue to proclaim that bee hives are central to beekeeping development?

Hive projects are popular with donors and NGOs

The demands and expectations of donor funded projects drive development planners to design projects with visible and measurable outputs. Bee hives are highly suitable in this regard. It is also an attractively simple solution to poverty - give a poor farmer a hive and he/she will become self-sufficient. This attractive idea has an important role to play in fundraising from donors and well wishers.  It is easy to draw up a budget for a certain number of hives and once delivered they can be photographed and counted helping the NGO prove that it has implemented the project as planned. It is much harder to see and measure a new skill or a new market link. This difficulty ultimately stems from the short term nature of many projects. If all beekeeping projects were measured by a change in income then a business development project or a market promotion project should ultimately achieve this measurable impact - but only after considerable time. Most projects do not have this time. Another reason why such projects are popular is that spending money on hives pushes up the costs of projects without increasing complexity of design or delivery. For organisations surviving on a percentage overhead of total project costs projects which are high on cost and yet simple are attractive to donors and implementing organisations.

Modern projects in tropical Africa Here at Bees for Development we believe that a truly modern beekeeping project emphasises the building of sustainable businesses with less emphasis on bee hives? Market access  It is important to focus on market access and the wider market system. The market and the experiences a beekeeper has in selling honey are influential. For example if the buyer to whom the beekeeper sells honey buys honey reliably and always asks for more honey the beekeeper has incentive to commercialise. If the town market is good but a farmer has no means to access this market for example there is no collective marketing group - then they will have a low interest in beekeeping as a cash crop.  Supply chain problems are very typical in Africa and stem from poor market information and linkages lack of working capital lack of containers low investment and poor communication. Without addressing these challenges changing the type of hive will have little impact.

Enterprise analysis To earn money and reduce poverty beekeepers need to be business-like and this means carrying out simple enterprise analyses. All beekeepers should have the skills to understand the concepts of direct costs implications of and interactions between direct costs selling price indirect costs and volume. Enterprise analysis can reveal that focusing on volume as opposed to price per kg can be the key to increasing total yearly income from an apiary. This is contrary to the usual focus on selling price alone.

Harvesting and handling for quality Supermarkets represent an important growth area for the honey industry in Africa. This means new and different expectations in terms of honey quality. Good honey quality can be achieved by any beekeeper who follows simple recommended practices and most importantly has access to a market that demands high quality honey. All beekeeping projects with the aim of commercialisation should invest in training beekeepers and collection centre staff in correct methods of honey harvesting from any type of hive and correct post-harvest handling and storage. The modern beekeeping project for poverty alleviation should emphasise:

  • Improving market access for beekeepers best achieved through collective marketing arrangements;
  • Enterprise analysis to develop understanding of the implications of direct costs indirect costs selling price and volume;
  • The importance of training beekeepers in how to harvest honey from all types of hive so to preserve the quality and integrity of the honey as the bees made it.

If you have experiences of beekeeping projects successful or not, we would like to hear from you. Contact References Lohr W. 1998 Sustainable beekeeping development. Bees for Development Journal 48: 10-11. Svensson B. 2002 Income from beekeeping: examples of expectations and experience. In: Strengthening Livelihoods: Exploring the role of beekeeping in development. Bees for Development Monmouth UK. Wainwright D. 2002 North Western Bee Products: A Zambian success story. In: Strengthening Livelihoods: Exploring the role of beekeeping in development. Bees for Development Monmouth UK.


The book Strengthening Livelihoods: Exploring the role of beekeeping in development is available from Bees for Development's online store.

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