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The Danish Beekeepers' Organisation is working with The Gambia Beekeepers' Co-operative in a three year training project sponsored by the Danish Government/DANIDA.
People outside the project have been interested to start beekeeping projects in their villages. Unfortunately, the cost of beekeeping clothing and timber for wooden top-bar hives is often too high: typically in The Gambia and Senegal the annual cash income of a household is obtained from growing about 1400 kg of groundnuts, sold for around £130 (UK). Lack of money stops people getting started, although in fact no money is necessary.
As an experiment in starting sustainable beekeeping without money, and without bringing strange equipment in from outside, we went to six village garden projects in the western part of The Gambia, to see if we could find a solution.
The traditional way of beekeeping with basket and log hives is no answer in the long run, because it usually means that bees are killed and all the combs spoiled during honey harvest. This is like a farmer who kills the cow to get the milk.
Making wood hives needs timber, a plane and a saw, and the skill to use them. These are not available in most villages. However there are beautiful baskets of all sizes in use everywhere, and most people are able to make them from palm leaves or grass. So it came to my mind that we could combine the designs of the Greek top-bar hive and the Kenya top-bar hive with the baskets used for exporting mango and citrus fruits to Senegal.
Together with Mr Sam Manga, one of the very skilled local beekeeping trainers, and women and men from the village, we made protective hats and veils from mosquito net, pieces of cloth and flexible sticks. Boots were made from old sacks and gloves from old working gloves. Smokers were made from tin cans as described in Bernhard and Renate Clauss's books from Zambia.
Make a top-bar basket hive
The export baskets we use are made from the leaves of rhun-palms. Their diameter is about 70 cm, the depth about 50 cm. Exact measurements are not important, but for honey production the volume needs to be about 60 litres. First we provide each basket with four solid sticks for hanging and transporting, then the baskets are plastered inside with wet cow dung. After drying in the sun for three days, the hives are smoked upside down over cow dung burning in a hole in the ground.
An entrance, no bigger than two or three finger widths, is easily cut into the basket with a knife. The top-bars are made of bamboo, any sticks from the bush, or the ribs of palm leaves. Each stick should be longer that the width of the basket but exactly 33 mm wide. In The Gambia this is the same width as a match box. The greatest problem in making the hives is in finding suitable sticks, and cutting them to the right width. The correct width of top-bars is very important to ensure that bees build only one comb from each top-bar. For bees in The Gambia this width is 33 mm, but it will depend upon the bees you are using.
On the underside of each top-bar we place a 'string' of beeswax, formed by rolling beeswax between hands. To secure the wax to the top-bar, the stick is warmed by a fire: some of the wax melts and gives a stronger smell to attract swarms. The wax underneath the top-bars guides the bees in building their combs: without it they would build the new combs in the same direction as the combs in the nest that the swarm has left.
Finally the hives are rubbed with aromatic leaves to give a good odour to attract bees. The hives are hung between four poles, and the top-bars carefully positioned. Leaves are placed on top of the top-bars, and some people also used a sheet of plastic. The leaf cover must be thick enough to protect the hive from the heat of the sun.
Placing the hives
Generally hives should be put where the beekeeper would also like to stay. This means somewhere with shade, not too much wind, protected from rain and bush fire, and equipped with drinking water. If there is no natural shade or rain protection, a permanent roofing can be made easily with leaves or grass.
Bees must always have fresh water close to the hives, and if they have plenty, they will not disturb people at wells. Water can be placed in a tin can secured to a pole, with sticks inside to prevent bees drowning. It should be placed so that monkeys cannot spoil it. In areas with honey badgers the basket hives should be hung from a tree and the top-bars covered in a very strong way, or the tree should be protected by thorny branches.
If hives are placed far away in the bush, they can only be protected against thieves by strong 'Jujus' (amulets). Remember to announce that they are protected in this way!
Inspecting and harvesting
After some time the hives should be occupied by swarms and when six or more combs are built from the top-bars, you will find the middle one or two combs with pollen and brood, and the outer combs with honey.
When inspecting or harvesting, the bees should be smoked very carefully: not too little and not too much before opening, and then the top-bars can be inspected, one at a time. To harvest the honey the pure honeycombs are lifted up, the bees are brushed away with a brush or a feather, and then most of the comb is cut away into a container and the top-bar is replaced in the hive.
The harvested combs are placed in a empty and clean rice sack, hung from the ceiling and pressed by hand so that the honey will run from the combs down into a container, being strained at the same time.
In forest areas it can be difficult to get hives on the ground occupied because swarms prefer to settle high in trees. If this is a problem, basket hives can be hung in the trees, or bait hives can be made from smaller baskets hung in trees and equipped with the normal size of top-bars, so that the top-bars in the bait hives may be subsequently transferred to a normal full-size basket hive. The bait hives are hung 5-10 metres above the ground.
We have also tried to transfer wild bees into basket hives by holding the wild combs with bees between two sticks and then hanging these in an empty hive.
Why not try?
The top-bar basket hive allows people from all income groups to get started in beekeeping. It is possible to expand beekeeping activities without money, and everything can be repaired easily. The basket hive is transportable, and it can be placed on poles or hung in a tree.
Our experiences from West and East Africa indicate that there are no great differences between the amounts of honey harvested from frame hives, top-bar hives (including the modern basket hive), and traditional log or basket hives. Frame hives are too expensive, the equipment is impossible to repair locally, and they are often stolen. Traditional ways of beekeeping often kill bees, and log and bark hives kill the trees they are made from. All types are eaten by termites eventually.
Then why not use a basket top-bar hive?
The greatest disadvantage of using the top-bar basket hive may be the jealousy from neighbours who do not know about beekeeping, and who could think you are doing sorcery by handling your bees so easily! Try to explain to them what you are doing.
The top-bar basket hive will be used in a continuation of The Gambia Beekeeping Project, and in new Danish projects in co-operation with Nafa Gonal in Guinea Bissau and Arusha Beekeepers' Association in Tanzania.
[Bees for Development Journal #33]