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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

The social sustainability of beekeeping

  • Bees in development
  • Fisher E
  • 1996
  • Article In Bfd Journal
  • English
  • Bees for Development 39 Text on this website

By Eleanor Fisher United Kingdom  Fisher is an anthropologist who has undertaken eighteen months of ethnographic research in Ugalla Game Reserve Tabora Region Tanzania. During this time she lived in the beekeeping camp of the Chairman of the Tabora Beekeepers' Co~operative Society. In this article she questions whether it is necessarily best to change existing beekeeping technology.  In B&D37 Horst Wendorf discussed successes and failures associated with a project introducing top-bar hive beekeeping in Zambia. He stated that "bark hive beekeeping and honey gathering are methods which cannot be developed further due to limitations regarding quality yields and workloads". Furthermore he considered these methods destructive and difficult to sustain due to deforestation.   However by focusing on the need for development through intervention it is possible to miss a very important feature of local beekeeping. Local methods using bark or log hives are socially culturally and economically sustainable and need not depend on external assistance. I am not able to comment on honey gathering.For people who live with harsh economic realities who are familiar with the failures of development projects the importance of self-sufficiency cannot be over-emphasised.No-one would wish to deny the value of positive change in people's lives. However one must question the extent to which a radical change in beekeeping methods will really assist people or environments. If technological intervention is necessary it should be carried out with extreme care.Drawing on research from south Tabora Region Tanzania I want to focus on the sustainability of beekeeping from a social perspective. This is often over-looked although such consideration can lead to constructive insights covering ecological sustainability.  The practices I focus on are 'local' ways of beekeeping not a 'traditional system'. Beekeeping has been created and recreated over the years incorporating many changes. What is important is its continued relevance in the lives of people who regard it as a valuable means of survival.Beekeeping is mainly done by men although some women have been drawn to the occupation. Log and bark hives are hung in the miombo woodlands in localities know as 'camps'. Because these camps are 50 to 200 km from beekeepers' homes groups of men travel and live together through the harvesting season. An established beekeeper may own 500-1500 hives distributed between different locations.Extensive parts of the so-called 'natural' woodlands in western Tanzania were inhabited until people were resettled elsewhere during the sleeping sickness epidemics between 1925 and 1940. It is in these areas that beekeepers return to hang their bee hives.Beekeeping camps are used over several generations. For example along the Ugalla River many camps were 'opened' in the late 1920s and continue to be used by people whose families lived there before resettlement 1925-1927. In camps used solely for beekeeping purposes there are also fishing hunting and timber camps people are sure that productivity has not declined over time.  Like honey hunting beekeeping is an inherited occupation. The idea of inheritance includes the passing on of bee hives knowledge skill and experience and conveys a sense of this livelihood being transmitted within a person's family and clan. Some people with no family tradition do begin beekeeping. This is particularly the case where a co-operative like the Tabora Beekeepers' Co-operative Society operates. However 'new' beekeepers are relatively few in number and many prefer to work as assistants or give up in years of hardship.The number of people in a beekeeping camp varies between six and fifteen depending upon individual preferences levels of wealth and the age of the camp. At the centre of the group is a core of one to six skilled beekeepers each well established in life. They are friends neighbours and often fellow Co-operative members. Each will attract apprentices - usually sons nephews or grandsons. These men learn the skills and start to make hives of their own whilst labouring for the beekeeper In addition to the beekeepers and apprentices a group of labourers will work at the camp. Their numbers vary according to how good or bad productivity is in a season. They are usually unmarried and without property bee hives a farm a house or they may be beekeepers in need of extra income.Close ties of co-operation also exist between camps within a locality. Beekeepers organise themselves in order to get transport and to carry produce. Assistance can also be found in times of hunger sickness and tobacco shortage! The camp and forest is a place where men - friends relatives neighbours ­come together year after year It is a focus for education and aspirations identity and lifestyle.Beekeepers prefer to work in camps where there are few people. Given that the method is land tree extensive this is connected to ecological factors like the number of trees suitable for hive hanging. But social factors and individual personalities also limit the number of people working in an area.All these factors must be taken into account when considering the ecological sustainability of beekeeping.The Tabora Beekeepers' Co-operative Society in Tanzania is testimony to the fact that individual beekeepers can produce large quantities of organic grade honey which is sold on international markets.New technology may not be needed to improve quality: the outcome of local methods is not necessarily an inferior product.Arguably the greatest assistance the Co-operative provides for beekeepers is the provision of transport and a market for their products. Furthermore those who encourage high productivity in beekeeping should not forget the need for people to have diversified livelihood strategies. Where people are poor with small risk margins encouragement for beekeepers to put 'all their eggs in one basket' may have negative as well as positive outcomes.Here I have drawn on information which is geographically specific and obviously too limited to act as a basis for wider generalisation. However when it is argued that beekeeping technologies need to be developed it is important to remember that intervention produces socio-cultural and economic implications for the people concerned.When contemplating intervention full consideration must be given to the way that skills knowledge and practices are learnt and transmitted. We must also take into account the part local beekeeping plays in people's livelihood strategies their lifestyles and identity and the community's cultural survival.Thanks to Mr Justin Madana Manager of the Tabora Beekeepers' Co-operative Society Mzee Lucas Martin Cnairman of the Co-operative and the beekeeper shareholders for facilitating this research. [Bees for Development Journal #39]

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