By Peter Paterson, Nairobi, Kenya
Peter Paterson presented this paper at the Seminar “The role of beekeeping in development programmes” organised jointly by Bees for Development and the Tropical Agriculture Association in April 2000.
TECHNOLOGY AND ECONOMICS
As long as the volume of a bee hive is adequate, hive design will not influence honey production. Good hive design will make management possible and easier for the beekeeper. A movable-comb or movable-frame hive enables detailed hive inspection, colony division or selective breeding and queen rearing as well as providing for ease of honey removal. In frame hives, the movable frames allow mechanical honey extraction and return of extracted combs to the hive. In the absence of management, hive design will not alter honey yield.
Bee hive technology may be divided into three types:
i. Fixed comb hives. These include cylindrical bark and log hives and various other hives of many different forms and materials found throughout most of the tropics and formerly also in Europe and America.
ii. Movable-comb hives. These are the top-bar hives, where bees build their comb attached to a top-bar that can be lifted out of the hive.
iii. Movable-frame hives. The frame hive is used world-wide in large scale commercial beekeeping. The Langstroth is the original and most widely used but there are countless variations, some are good and some are atrocious.
Choice of hive technology should be based on the cost and ease of production and availability in relation to local honey potential and cash return. These vary according to geographical location and temperament of both bees and beekeeper.
Now I will give some examples from the field to illustrate the success, failure or weakness of various bee hive systems in different situations.
In 1994 I looked at beekeeping in the Elburz Mountains of Iran and the areas around the Caspian Sea. Frame hive beekeeping in Iran has increased since the mid 1960s and a report in 1986 suggested that there were 1.3 million colonies of honeybees in Iran of which one quarter were in traditional hives. These were being kept by 40,000 beekeepers each with between 12 and 1,000 colonies. The one beekeeper I saw who was using fixed-comb, log-type hives was having great difficulty due to Varroa. This beekeeper (probably rightly) blamed the migratory frame hive beekeepers for having introduced Varroa to the previously disease free area. Ebadi in Apiacta 25(3): 90-96 (1990) suggests yields of 10 kg for movable-frame hives and 3 kg for traditional hives.
In this case, frame hive beekeeping involved a system of migratory beekeeping whereby the beekeepers, usually with their family, moved around the countryside three or four times a year following the floral calendar, camping at each apiary in turn. Essentially the system was good and there was an excellent understanding of bee husbandry. The only problem was the rather poor yields that were being obtained and this was because of gross overstocking. The beekeepers rely on hired transport for movement of their hives. The hired transport arrived on a predetermined day to move the hives in anticipation of honey flows, but these dates made no account of local variations. Each beekeeper owned 100-200 hives and, because of the transport system, they were all put together in single apiaries when they were moved from one site to another. It was the old problem of the Masai keeping too many cattle: it only pays to reduce the number of livestock if everyone else does too. My recommendation was that apiaries should be made smaller and hives scattered over a larger area. The beekeepers may have obtained as much honey by keeping 50 hives as 150. However, because their neighbour, within bee foraging range, was also keeping 100-200 hives he had to choose to go for the maximum number of hives he could afford. Thus the hive technology was right for the area and its economic parameters. The problem was in overstocking.
This provides an example of frame hive beekeeping taking over from traditional hives. Success perhaps, but at the expense of the traditional, small-scale beekeeper.
Now I would like to take you to Myanmar where I had the privilege of spending a month in 1991. I was looking at a beekeeping project that had been supported by FAO 10 years previously. It was the most impressive beekeeping project I have ever seen. South East Asia has no indigenous Apis mellifera honeybees. There are several different species of honeybees including Apis dorsata, Apis cerana and Apis florea. The Myanmar Government had established about 10,000 Apis mellifera colonies in frame hives through various parts of the country. I saw many of the apiaries and without exception they were excellent. Once again the only serious fault I could see was the size of the apiaries which held up to 100 hives and should have been a half or a third of those sizes. Most of what I saw was government-orientated with a certain amount of military activity in honeybees as well. But the system was working. I was also impressed that the Myanmar project had ten years previously been given eight motorcycles and three trucks. All were still on the road. There was a workshop. The machinery was worn after ten years of hard work but still just in working order. This was an excellent project. It was worthy of further support but although a new phase was approved, it was not funded because of renewed sanctions against Myanmar.
Success with fixed comb hives
The existence of traditional hives is testimony to their success. These are fixed comb hives and have until recent times been used throughout the beekeeping world. Traditional hives have the great advantage of being cheap and easily made from locally available materials. The economics are extremely good. The inputs are time and traditional knowledge, and the outputs are honey and beeswax. Usually there is no cash outlay. The quality of honey made by honeybees is the same regardless of hive design. The care taken in harvesting and handling honey by the beekeeper is what decides quality. Very good quality honey may be obtained from traditional hives. Market forces and price incentive will encourage a traditional beekeeper to produce overnight clean, selected honey.
Nevertheless traditional beekeeping is on the decline. In many areas it is practised far less than 30 years ago, if at all. The main reason for this is theft and this is why large-scale beekeeping is virtually impossible in most of Africa. Sadly, in more populated areas the only safe place to keep bee hives is close to the homestead. A further current problem with traditional hives is that many are made from hollowed out logs obtained from large trees. In much of Africa most suitable trees and forests have now disappeared and it would be a pity for any more to be turned into hives. However there are alternatives as demonstrated by the many traditional hives made from woven grass and various fibre materials.
In view of the widespread adoption of this very successful beekeeping practice, great care needs to be taken in suggesting something better.
Success with top-bar hives
Top-bar hives have no frames requiring an accurate bee space and therefore their construction is simpler than frame hives. Only the top-bar width needs to be well made and even its width is not very critical so long as there is a good starter guide.
Since the late 1960s top-bar hives have been widely advocated in central Africa. Some have been successful but there are many cases where they have not been. There are too many apiaries in total neglect, probably because these hives and their use were either never understood or there was some serious fault with them, probably the top-bars.
A well made top-bar hive in stationary beekeeping can be used in the same way as a frame hive except for mechanical extraction of combs and the return of empty combs to the bees. Migratory beekeeping ideally requires wired frames although traditional hives are sometimes migrated in Ethiopia.
The temperament of the African honeybee is such that it is not conducive to much manipulation. Thus if a top-bar hive is not well made it will not be easy to manipulate the bees - a certain discouragement to their use.
The most serious problem that arises from top-bar hives is that the top-bars are not working. When they do not work it is a design fault. The Greek basket hive had top-bars that were rounded on the underside and this seemed to encourage the honeybees to build their combs at the lowest point. The Kenya top-bar hive was originally made with a V edge and the bees attached their comb to that quite well on the whole. The best way of all is a 1.25 cm wax starter strip fitted into a saw cut. This is the easiest and cheapest top-bar. It does need a little extra work and care to set up the wax strip but such starters are very reliable. Unfortunately there has been a move to make top-bars with a ridiculous little wooden protrusion, which is extravagant on wood and is awkward to make. Honeybees will very frequently not follow the wooden lips even if they have a smearing of wax. Instead of following the length of the top-bar the bees build across the bars attaching combs to several bars thereby removing all benefit of movable combs.
Top-bar hives do need management. If they are single chamber, as most of them are, they have limitations in volume and so it is very important that they are harvested regularly and also that excess old or pollen-clogged combs are removed so that there is always room for new comb construction. If management is not happening these old combs can block the way for new comb and honey production.
A potential of top-bar hives, which has not yet been much exploited, is in the use of multi-chamber top-bar hives. I have described this in an article entitled “A Langstroth hive with top-bars instead of frames” (Bee World 69(2) 1988). I suggest that this hive is the best of all top-bar hives with a potential of yields of 15 kg or more. It has considerable advantages in ease of construction and manipulation especially harvesting.
Well managed top-bar hives can give good results. One of the best projects I have seen using top-bar hives is in DR Congo. One advantage of that project was that the new beekeepers had no tradition of beekeeping. This meant that everything started from scratch and people learned how to use the hives with no preconceived ideas of how they should work.
Another good project I saw was in North-West Cameroon where top-bar hives were made from raffia palms, an ingenious way of making a good hive from cheap, locally-available materials.
The conclusion must be that properly done, in good conditions, there is no question that top-bar hives can work very well. Top-bar hives that are badly made and carelessly promoted waste a lot of time and resources.
Frame hives in Africa
Frame hives are being used successfully in North Africa, and in South Africa. They have been used intermittently throughout Africa with varying degrees of success and failure. In the 1960s F G Smith promoted frame hives, but despite his team’s extensive work with the Tanzania Forest Department there is now no significant use of frame hives in Tanzania. In Kenya, enthusiastic hobbyists have used frame hives successfully over many years but on a very limited scale. Today there is almost no frame hive beekeeping except for one organisation: Honey Care International that is endeavouring to promote Langstroth frame hives. The situation in Uganda is much the same: the long “Johnson” frame hive did not endure. In Rwanda and Burundi Langstroth frame hives have been used to some good advantage and I have seen some excellent honey. I suspect that the honeybees are a little milder to work with in Rwanda and Burundi, but even so the use of frame hives is limited and if they were really the answer I would have expected to see many more of them there.
Almost all the frame hives I have seen in Africa have been project-related in some way, or kept by beekeeping enthusiasts, often expatriate people. I am aware of no evidence that frame hives have been adopted by peasant farmers in central Africa, outside of any project subsidisation. I suggest this is because of the high cost of hives, poor construction and availability, and the high defensiveness of the African honeybee. Frame hives are only going to work to advantage if they are well used and understood. If they are badly made to less than an accuracy of 1.6 mm they will be a menace to work with.
In development projects, frame hive technology has not been satisfactory in central Africa. Frame hives should be advocated only in exceptional circumstances.
Traditional beekeeping works very well in the absence of theft and honeybee disease. If it is working well I would be inclined to leave it at it is. Fixed comb hives still have an excellent potential. Thus I am very interested in better use and design of fixed comb hives. In particular I have in mind multi chamber fixed comb hives. The classic case of this is the European straw skep. The simplest skeps were single chamber hives. Then the idea came in for use of supers whereby a smaller skep was placed on the main skep that had a 10 cm diameter hole in to top to let the bees go up into the super. In this way the brood chamber need never be disturbed. The principle is that of brood chamber and honey super.
I would like to see more experimentation on this principle using any locally available material. Cement, fibre cement, plastic, corrugated plastic sheeting - all have possibilities. The low cost of such hives is very attractive, as is the ease of management. The only draw back is that they do not lend themselves to advanced management, but if such management is in fact not happening anyway, that does not matter.
[Bees for Development Journal #57]