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It is useful to bear in mind that bee hives are designed to suit the needs of a beekeeper and not the bees. Cavity nesting honey bees like Apis mellifera thrive very well where they are indigenous and have no need of a hive - provided they can find a protected space of more or less the right size. This is useful to consider when weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of different hives. Which do the beekeepers prefer to use and which can they afford?
Frame hives are designed to allow maximum manipulation of the colony (and colonies) - and therefore unless a beekeeper is going to spend a lot of time manipulating the colony, the ease of doing so, afforded by frames , is of little benefit. Likewise using a frame is handy if you have a centrifuge within easy reach and have no need to harvest beeswax. As most of these things do not apply in many parts of Africa, the benefit of using a frame hive is lost. The cost of using a frame hive is very unlikely to be worth it except in occasional circumstances. A frame hive can easily cost 30 times more than a local style hive and yet a beekeeper will never harvest 30 times more honey. This is without considering the recurrent cost of frames and foundation.
We need to remember also that the first attempts to introduce frame hives to Africa date back to the 1890's and experience has shown that they have not been readily adopted. If they were, we would undoubtedly see more of them in use in Africa today. Currently most frame hives found in Africa have been bought and paid for by donor projects and not by beekeepers. People say "frame hives produce more honey". However, Bees for Development would respond that bees produce honey, not hives. Bees are not more productive in a frame hive - meaning they do not forage more often, do not make honey any more efficiently nor at any greater rate. What is true, is that because the wax is already provided, the bees can invest more resources into making honey. Therefore, of the total harvest there is more honey and less wax. On the other hand, in a top-bar hive or local style hive, there is a greater proportion of wax harvested (approximately 10 honey: 1 wax). Again which is preferred depends on the beekeeper. Access to a centrifuge is also problematic in many communities. The cost means it makes sense for beekeepers to share a centrifuge, but this introduces the challenge of transporting supers to the centrifuge - often a difficult and dusty operation.
For any beekeeper choosing to move away from local style hives, the top-bar hive is much more suitable than a frame hive for many of the reasons given above. However, top-bar hives are not without their challenges.
Local style hives are often perfectly suitable. They are so cheap that in a cost-benefit analysis they prove to be more profitable than top-bar or frame-hives. Their prevalence is proof that they are successful. In many cases the point of intervention with local style beekeepers is the method of harvesting. Bees for Development takes the view that if a fraction of the money spent on bee hives was spent on training beekeepers on improved harvesting techniques and post-harvest honey handling, then more value would be achieved.
Finally, we also take the view that it is not useful to focus on yield per hive isolated from other factors such as the cost of the hive or the number of colonies. It would be far more useful to measure success in terms of:
Total income made by a beekeeper in one year - regardless of how many hives they have
Profit of a whole production unit i.e. all hives, all equipment and total harvest