In response to Modern hives or modern ideas
Keywords: Africa, bee products, income generation; local-style hives, movable-frame hive, top-bar hive, Varroa
I recently became a member of BfD Trust. I have kept bees in top-bar hives as a commercial enterprise in central New Mexico State, USA for more than 25 years. The article Modern hives or modern ideas* expresses a concept that I have thought about and taught for a while. I had Langstroth frame hives, worked for a large-scale beekeeper (4,000+ hives) and was a temporary honey bee inspector for the State of New Mexico Department of Agriculture. For a while my top-bar hives were experimental, hobby hives and my framed equipment was my main source of income. As the equipment aged and Varroa mites arrived, I was confronted with a difficult year, with few bees alive, old worn-out equipment, minimal projected income for that year and three children to care for. I evaluated the cost of new frame equipment versus making more top-bar hives and decided that I would take the somewhat controversial step of selling my extractor to make money, building 60 or so very inexpensive top-bar hives, collecting wild bees and doing bee removals from homes in a nearby town, and trying a business based on top-bar hives. I already had a reputation for not using antibiotics, comb repellents and comb-fumigants (to protect supers from wax moths). I found that the top-bar hive is superior to the frame hive in many ways, mainly in that it helps me make money. Honey production is a little less (20-25%): however beeswax production is much higher at 600%. There are no supers to store and protect, the bees build their own varied cell-sized combs, and with care in selecting brood-free combs to harvest and crush, we have an excellent and dedicated customer base in the Santa Fe grower\'s market for our delicious, natural honey. The down side of top-bar beekeeping is that my wife and I want movable-combs and we manage the 200 hives so that the bees build the combs straight on the top-bars. This keeps the hive legal in New Mexico and also makes looking through the bees and harvesting honey quick and easy. My wife and I are able to make a good living and take care of our little farm and bees without hired help. We take our bees to California to pollinate organic almonds, raise queen bees, sell bottled and comb honey and beeswax, and I have taught beekeeping for more than 20 years. The key to our success is in market development and slow growth with the local market. Get a few hives going inexpensively and start selling a little honey. If the quality is what the customer wants you can slowly expand the number of hives with a portion of the return. The customer can also be educated about the damage to enzymes that heat causes, the benefits of some pollen in honey, and beekeepers should know the dangers of brood, protein or water in honey. At some point you may find that you have 200 or 300 hives like us, and more market than you can supply. I teach people to keep bees and some of them can help supply the market needs. I agree with your concept that beekeeping should be done with small inputs and good market development. Beekeeping needs to make the beekeeper some relatively quick money. We pay for our hives with 3-4 kg of honey. The hive should make a profit in the first year and for a good many years. There needs to be enough hands-on training with populated hives so that new beekeepers can confidently open a hive and harvest honey. In my beekeeping classes we spend most of the time in the bee-yard and only 25% in a classroom. I have taught many students over the last 20 years and have seen people with many different expectations. It seems to me that those that started with big plans and high economic hopes were the ones who quit the soonest after the work, a few stings and a slow market that they had not taken the time to develop, and that did not meet their hopes quickly enough. One has to have some joy of working with bees and seeing the beauty in the essence of flowers being distilled by these ingenious little creatures and be willing to let things grow slowly. The market will grow and good honey and beeswax is greatly appreciated by many people around the world so it does not take long.
I use top-bar hives for several reasons and one is that the extra wax can be sold to herbalists to make lip balms and salves, candles and ornaments. Another reason for using top-bar hives is the ease and low-cost of renewing the brood combs. As a teenager I used to take on jobs removing bees from hollow spaces in buildings and noticed that bees building comb in their own way often eventually abandoned the older, black, thick-walled, cocoon-filled combs and let the wax moths eat them. The bees would then slowly remove the wax moth debris and build new comb in the space. Urban renewal. Also here in the USA older combs have been found to absorb high levels of oil-soluble insecticides. Comb renewal is important. The investment of a small portion of the profits, 5-10%, to buy more boards or even a smoker is a discipline that makes the business thrive and expand.
Les Crowder, Dixon, USA
Abraham Allotey recommends the following for successful commercialisation of sustainable apiculture in the tropics:
Abraham Allotey (right) is a Customer Services Officer for the Ghana Forest Commission stationed at Amasaman District, Accra
© Abraham Allotey
* Modern hives or modern ideas? by Janet Lowore and Nicola Bradbear first published in BfDJ 90, March 2009. Now available on the BfD website Information Portal