10 minute read

Beekeeping economics

Beekeeping economics – woodland beekeeping in Zambia

Janet Lowore and Nicola Bradbear, Bees for Development, 1 Agincourt Street, Monmouth NP25 3DZ, UK

In this article we consider the economics of miombo woodland beekeeping in Zambia. Miombo woodlands are the largest forest type in Africa and stretch East-West from Mozambique to Angola and North-South from the southern part of DR Congo to Zimbabwe (White 1983). These woodlands are semi-deciduous, tend to be dominated by low financial value timber species, and are typically on nutrient poor soils. However, their value for beekeeping is acknowledged: “The dominance of Brachystegia, Isoberlinia and Julbernardia provides the basis for beekeeping as a highly significant (culturally, economically and socially) form of land use in miombo woodland” (Campbell et al 2007).

The miombo woodland beekeeping system practised in the North Western Province (NWP) of Zambia involves beekeepers making many cylindrical bark hives and hanging them in trees. The hives are dispersed throughout a large area of forest to ensure that they are readily occupied by swarms, migrating or absconding honey bee colonies. The wide distribution ensures good access to forage resources, and risks from fire or pests are spread, and thereby minimised.

Socio-economic analysis

The data used for this article is from work published by Wainwright in 1989. Although some of the factors will have changed since that time, the method of analysis remains instructive. In this article we use the 1988 figures and 1988 value in US$ used in the original paper (1.000 Zambian Kwacha (K) = US$0.125). See Table 5 for a benchmark against current figures.

Profitability of miombo woodland beekeeping

Wainwright developed a model based on his experiences observing and measuring bark hive beekeeping systems in NWP during the 1980s. To understand profitability it is necessary to calculate return on investment. The main investment in bark hive beekeeping is the labour of the beekeeper. The other factors for production – bees, nectar, bee trees and materials for making hives - are all freely available. It is instructive therefore to calculate the return on investment as the return on each day of labour invested, rather than the return on a financial investment. To work out the net incomes from bark hives, the labour requirements were considered. It is also important to consider the sensitivity of net income to variations in hive occupation rates and production per hive.

Table 1 shows data collected by Wainwright and used to work out the profitability of bark hives. Purchased equipment such as smokers and veils are not considered because these were optional and many beekeepers did not use them.

Table 1. Costs and labour requirements of bark hives*

Fixed labour:


Cost and labour requirements: 5 days labour

Swarm catching

Cost and labour requirements: 0 days

Notes: The system relies on hives being occupied by bees – this does not involve further work by the beekeeper

Hive hanging

Cost and labour requirements: 21 days labour

Variable labour:

Management of the colony

Cost and labour requirements: 0 days

Notes: The colonies are never opened, managed or manipulated until cropping

Introducing swarms to hives

Cost and labour requirements: 0 days

 Notes: The system relies on self-colonisation

Cropping honey

Cost and labour requirements:  1 day/40 kg of honey

Notes: Central to this analysis is an understanding that some labour investment is directly proportional to the volumes harvested

Transporting honey

Cost and labour requirements: 2 days/40 kg of honey

Notes: Central to this analysis is an understanding that some labour investment is directly proportional to the volumes harvested

Processing honey

Cost and labour requirements: 1 day/40 kg of honey

Notes: Central to this analysis is an understanding that some labour investment is directly proportional to the volumes harvested

*Assuming that the beekeeper places 100 bark hives in the forest


Calculation of net daily income

The labour effort which beekeepers invest in their system consists of fixed and variable labour. With bark hive beekeeping, the variable labour effort is taken up by cropping, transporting and processing honey: this is directly related to production ie the greater the harvest, the more labour is required. In Table 1 it is shown that a total of four days are spent cropping, transporting and processing each 40 kilograms of honey harvested. This allows us to use the figure of one day labour for every 10 kg of honey. In other beekeeping systems, where beekeepers manage their colonies more intensively, their labour investment will increase in proportion to the number of hives with bees. This does not apply to forest beekeeping.

Formula for returns on labour for bark hive beekeeping

At the time the study was done (1988), the average rate for one day of labour was K12.00 (US$1.50) and the revenue from one kilogram of honey was K4.45 (US$0.56). The data in Table 1 makes it possible to work out the return on each day of labour - where a different number of hives are cropped, and their average yield varies. The scenario always involves 100 hives which demand 26 days of fixed labour.

Daily wage = total income/total number of days spent beekeeping Total income = price x total yield

Total number of days = 26 (fixed labour for 100 hives) + (total yield /10)

Total yield = number of hives cropped x average yield per hive

Table 2. Daily wage outcomes for different combinations of average yield and percentage of hives cropped*

Percentage cropped (out of 100) /  Average yield per hive per cropping:

5% [five hives] 

5kg  -  K3.90

8 kg - K5.93

10 kg -  K7.18

15 kg - K9.96

10% [ten hives]

5kg - K7.18

8kg - K10.47

10kg - K12.36

15kg - K16.28

15% [fifteen hives]

5kg - K9.96

8kg - K14.05

10kg - K16.28

15kg - K20.64

20% [twenty hives]

5kg - K12.36

8kg- K16.95

10kg - K19.35

15kg- K23.84

Below the average daily wage ie below

K12 Above the average daily wage ie above K12



This calculation (Table 2) did not take into account the labour invested in making the hives in the first place. However, Wainwright did work out what this would entail - see Table 3.

Table 3. Initial cost for a bark hive*

Cash investment  - 0 Labour investment

Cost of 0.6 days of labour per  -  0.6 x US$1.5* = US$0.9 hive

Calculation of labour requirements -  Time (days) 

Cutting one hive from bark  - 0.16

Making pegs -  0.10

Making doors  - 0.10

Gathering grass and fibre  - 0.08

Hanging the hive -  0.16

Total labour days -  0.60

*1 labour day= US$1.5 (US$1.00 = €0.77 in May 2013)


To include the cost of making the hives, it would be necessary to know how many hives are renewed each year to maintain a stock of 100. If two days a year were spent making hives it would be necessary to increase the fixed labour costs associated with maintaining 100 hives from 26 to 28. This would have to be reflected in calculating the daily wage, and would slightly alter the results in Table 2.

This analysis assumes that variable costs associated with cropping, transporting and processing honey are related to total yield, regardless of whether the honey is harvested from many hives or few. In fact it is likely that there are increased labour implications from harvesting honey from many low yielding hives because it takes time to climb each tree to lower down the hive. Beekeepers will not waste time lowering down a hive which they can see to be empty, and a very small yield would be a wasted effort. This is why beekeepers design their system to mitigate against this scenario.

More about cropping ratios

A beekeeper with many hives is not able to crop all the occupied hives. This means that a hive might stay for two to five years without cropping. During this time large reserves of honey can be accumulated and many swarms are produced to occupy any empty hives. Cropping fewer hives, infrequently, is the most productive approach. The opposite situation - where a beekeeper crops all the hives, including newly occupied ones, is not very productive. Table 4 shows some information about cropping ratios. This data - collected by different people in different years - reveals that around half of all occupied hives are cropped.

Table 4. Data concerning numbers of occupied hives and percentage cropped

Hive occupation (average %):

Silberrad (1976) - 35.0

Clauss (1991) - 40.6

Husselman (2009) -  33.0

Percentage of all hives which are cropped (average):

Silberrad (1976) -  18.0

Clauss (1991) - 16.6

Husselman (2009) -  No figure given


Table 5. Costs and exchange rates in Zambia 1988, benchmarked against later figures*

Costs: Average casual labour wage for one day in Zambia 

1988 (Wainwright 1989) - K12.00 (US$1.50) (NWP)

Latest figures - US$3.80 (Journal du Net 2013)*

Costs: Revenue per kg of honey harvested

1988 (Wainwright 1989) - K4.45 (US$0.56) (NWP)

Latest figures - US$0.45 (Husselman 2009) (North Western Province), US$90.00 (Kancheya 2010) (Northern Province), US$1.00 (SNV 2012) (no region given)

*This rate is the legal minimum wage in Zambia, set in 2012, and may not represent the predominant average wage



This analysis is not new. Miombo woodland beekeeping is widely practised in Zambia and in other miombo forest countries such as Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania. Many development projects have proposed to introduce alternative hive types, however bark, log and local-style hives remain prevalent. The miombo woodland beekeeping systems of NWP are productive, yielding 4,000 tonnes of honey in 2010 (SNV 2012). The analysis presented here suggests a method to work out profitability based on understanding of the system as a whole. Central to this is appreciation of the fact that cropping a portion of a large number of hives is by design, and not a sign that the system is unproductive - as some analysts suggest. It is also important to note that there are variable labour costs associated with the yield. This is in contrast to box hive systems where variable labour costs are related to number of colonies managed. When using box hives it is possible to spend labour collecting swarms, hiving swarms, managing and manipulating colonies and, for reasons outside of the control of the beekeepers, the yield from some colonies may be still be low – or in tropical Africa, the colony may abscond or migrate. And yet the labour has already been invested.

Finally it is clear from the analysis presented here that in most miombo woodland beekeeping scenarios it is possible to earn at least the average daily wage for each day spent beekeeping, and the actual wage earned is likely to be above this figure.


CAMPBELL,B.M.; ANGELSEN,A.; CUNNINGHAM,A.; KATERERE,Y.; SITOE,A.; WUNDER,S. (2007) Miombo woodlands – opportunities and barriers to sustainable forest management. A Report for World Bank-administered Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development.

CLAUSS,B. (1991) Bees and beekeeping in the North Western Province of Zambia. Beekeeping Survey for Forestry Department. IRDP, Lusaka, Zambia.

HUSSELMAN,M; PAUMGARTEN,F. (2009) Alleviating poverty through beekeeping: lessons from Zambia. Presentation given at Apimondia, 2009. CIFOR and SIDA.

JOURNAL DU NET (2013) <http://www.journaldunet.com/ economie/salaire/pays/zambie.shtml>, accessed 10 May 2013]

KANCHEYA, K. (2010) Sweet treasures from the forest: the case of Lua Lua Beekeeping Cooperative and Mungwi beekeepers. SNV Case Study, Lusaka, Zambia.

SILBERRAD,R.E.M. (1976) Beekeeping in Zambia. Apimondia Publishing House, Bucharest, Romania.

SNV (2012) Bee products factsheet. Agriculture in Zambia.

WAINWRIGHT,D. (1989) Appropriate beekeeping technology in Central Africa. Newsletter for beekeepers in tropical and sub-tropical countries 14.

WAINWRIGHT,D. (1989) Socio-economic comparison of beekeeping technologies in Zambia. In Proceedings of 4th International Conference on Apiculture in Tropical Climates, Cairo, 1988: 360- 366. IBRA, Cardiff, UK.

WHITE, F. (1983) The vegetation of Africa. UNESCO/AETFAT/UNSO vegetation map of Africa: 20: 1-356. Natural Resources Research, Paris, France.


Beekeeping system: This refers to the bees, the technology, the management approach and the wider environment which beekeepers manage, use or interact with as they work to secure a harvest of bee products

Hive occupation percentage: Percentage of sited hives that are occupied by honey bees

Cropping: The harvesting of honey comb from a honey bee colony

Cropping ratio: The ratio between number of hives harvested and the number of hives occupied/or the number of hives in total. Different people use the term cropping ratio differently, and this must be taken into consideration when comparing data.

Miombo woodland characterised by branched trees and open canopy