Making local beekeeping sustainable in Sierra Leone
Kwame Aidoo, Saltpond Honey Centre, PO Box 169, Saltpond, Ghana
Keywords: African beekeeping, basket hives, beekeeping calendar, FAO, honey marketing, Koinadugu, local hives, pulling honey
Koinadugu is the largest district in Sierra Leone, sharing a border with Guinea to the North. The major occupation is agriculture, with farmers involved in crop and animal production. Rice is the main staple crop and is grown in low lying swamps, as well as on high ground during the rainy season. Other cultivated crops include Brassica, cassava, okra, peppers and sweet potatoes. The rainy season is May until October while the rest of the year is a long, dry season, characterised by very hot daytime temperatures with dry Hamattan winds.
Local style beekeeping
Many farmers in the district practise local styles of beekeeping that have been passed between generations. Honey from these beekeepers becomes available in the weekly markets during April and May. This beekeeping begins with learning the skills for weaving cylindrical baskets from raffia canes. These baskets are developed into bee hives by coating them with a thick layer of either cow dung or clay and cow dung mix. After the basket dries in the sun for about three days, it is wrapped with a thick layer of dry grass and bound tightly with rope also made of raffia. Two discs are woven with the pith of the raffia cane and these are used to close up each end of the cylindrical basket. Two holes made in the disc serve as entrances for the bee colony that is hoped will settle inside.
The basket hive is placed high in the branches of a tall tree and is fastened with raffia rope to hold it securely. One tree may hold up to five hives, depending on the spread of the canopy. The beekeepers set up their hives during January and February to catch the swarms of bees that abound in the forests at that time of the year. In March and April, two to three months after the hives have been colonised, the farmers get ready for honey harvest, or as they refer to it \'pulling honey\'.
The battle of \'pulling honey\'
Tree climbing is a skill that a good beekeeper must learn for hive placement and for honey harvest. At dusk the harvesting team leaves the village and moves into the dark forest with honey harvesting tools and containers. The operation begins with lighting a torch of fire made with dry palm fronds or grass. One member of the gang climbs the tree armed with a cutlass and a long, strong rope. He goes up into the canopy and ties the rope around the hive. He then cuts loose the raffia ties that secured the hive to the tree and with the rope, and using a tree branch as a pulley, lowers the hive slowly to the ground. The heavy hive lands on the forest floor and the bees are angry. As quickly as possible, the grass cover of the hive is cut open to expose the inner cylinder. This is slashed length-wise to expose all the combs.
All honeycombs, mature or immature, are removed and put into containers; some brood combs are also taken home to be eaten. During this operation many of the worker bees are burnt with the torch and the entire nest is destroyed. The fate of the few bees that are not killed is anybody\'s guess. The team moves on to harvest the next hive in the same manner.
The role of women
Women are forbidden to climb trees and therefore cannot \'pull honey\', however they are responsible for the important roles of processing and marketing. The man comes home deep in the night with a load of honeycombs and some brood combs to be enjoyed by all, including the neighbours. The woman\'s work begins with preparing a hot bath for the man, and she checks his body to remove the remnants of numerous stings. She must extract the honey before daybreak, otherwise bees will invade the house next morning to take back their stolen treasure. The combs are put into a big cooking pot and placed on a fire to melt. The woman stirs up the combs until all have melted. When it is done the molten mixture of honey and wax is taken off the fire and poured into broad mouthed containers, that are tightly covered and allowed to cool. After cleaning her kitchen of all traces of honey and wax, she goes to bed - only to be woken at dawn by the call to all faithful to worship. The next day the melted combs have formed solid beeswax on top of the honey. This is removed and put aside (it is not regarded as being of commercial importance). The cooked honey is packed into 7 kg plastic containers and sent to the market place where buyers from neighbouring Guinea buy them at cheap prices. The honey merchants are content with the honey produced in the district and buy at the giveaway price of SLL6,000 (€1.02; US$1.40) per 7 kg container. The sale of honey in the market closes the beekeeping season for the year. The farmer thereafter becomes pre-occupied with the cultivation of food crops.
In January the farmer begins again to think about bees and honey. New basket hives are constructed and the beekeeping cycle is re-visited. Pastor John Kumara is acclaimed as the leading beekeeper in Koinadugu. He is the Chairman of the Musaia Beekeeping Group which has 25 members. This group has about 500 basket hives with an average yield of 14 kg of honey. About one tonne of honey is sent for sale in Musaia. This means that in every beekeeping season, 500 hives are destroyed, 500 bee colonies are killed, and about 300 trees are climbed twice.
A new era
The Government of Sierra Leone working through the Ministry of Agriculture, with support from the Italian Government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), launched Operation Feed the Nation under the Food Security for Commercialisation of Agriculture project. Honey was identified as one of the products that has potential to become an income earner for farmers. Cassava, rice and vegetables were also included in the project. In July 2009, FAO assessed the beekeeping potential of Koinadugu. Recognising the great potential for the district, various interventions were planned for improvement. Beekeepers in the district were put into 44 groups, each with a membership of 25. These were prepared to receive interventions recommended by the FAO consultant. This marked the beginning of a new era of quality honey production in the district. Since then the project has organised two training workshops for farmers to improve production and quality of their honey.
In February 2010, an eight day intensive training workshop was organised for selected members of the 44 groups, where the traditional beekeeping practices of the district were critically reviewed. Modifications to these practices were discussed thoroughly with careful consideration of the views of farmers and alternatives to negative practices were suggested, sometimes by the farmers, and accepted by all. There were no drastic changes to the traditional system, and beekeeping in the district has been greatly improved through modification of existing practices.
Cow dung in hive construction
The use of cow dung in coating the outside of the basket hive to protect it from rain was ruled out since the beekeeping season is devoid of rains. During discussions it became clear that the only reason for using cow dung was to seal holes in the basket to create a dark internal chamber for the bees\' nest. A good wrapping of the basket with Kola leaves or banana leaves and then a thick layer of grass is a good substitute for the cow dung. This was demonstrated by Pastor Kamara and many of the beekeepers testified that the practice has been with them for many years. They all agreed to adopt leaf wrapping to replace the use of cow dung.
New Kamara basket hive
The design of the original basket hive was improved to enable the beekeeper to harvest honey combs without destroying the entire bees\' nest. The new hive has a brood chamber which slots into a second honey section and allows harvesting with little disturbance of the colony. Pastor Kamara and I designed the hive and he built and tested it with good results. He demonstrated this to all participants at the workshop.
Placement of hives and the apiary concept
The reason for the placement of hives in trees was to stop the annual bush fires from destroying the colonies. All the beekeepers agreed that tree climbing in the night was very risky and cumbersome, and that a fire belt created around an apiary with 10 to 20 hives could offer protection to colonies. It was agreed that hives could be arranged on platforms and covered with a thick layer of dry grass. Alternatively a thatch hut \'Bafa\' could be developed as a bee house for effective colony management.
Development of a beekeeping calendar
Through question and answer sessions, a descriptive beekeeping calendar (see image below) was developed to serve as a working guide for the beekeepers of Koinadugu. During the sessions it appeared that two honey harvests are possible during the dry season from November to April if colonies are not killed during harvesting. Beekeeping tasks for each period of the year were spelled out and discussed thoroughly. Honey bee colonies can therefore be well managed to achieve higher honey and beeswax yields.
Honey business centre
As part of the project implementation plan, a honey processing facility will be established in Musaia to handle production from all beekeeping groups in the district. The facility will enable the Agricultural Business Centre to focus on marketing of top quality honey and other bee products. A management committee with membership drawn from the beekeeping groups will operate the Centre to serve as an outlet for farmers\' produce.
Current trends of beekeeping in Koinadugu District
Dr Kwame Aidoo is BfD\'s Correspondent in Ghana