13 minute read

Honey trade conserves forests in Ethiopia

Janet Lowore and Nicola Bradbear

The Body Shop is an international cosmetics company aiming for high environmental sustainability standards when sourcing ingredients, and to use trade to promote biodiversity conservation.

In 2016 The Body Shop asked Bees for Development to undertake a sustainability study of forest beekeeping in Ethiopia, to determine whether forest beekeeping and the harvest of honey and beeswax cause harm to the environment, and to seek any positive link between honey trade and forest conservation.

HONEYMANIA – one of The Body Shop products featuring honey from Sheka rainforest in Ethiopia
Photos © Bees for Development


The rainforests of Sheka Zone, Ethiopia, are centres of high biodiversity and the forests remain relatively intact. The importance of these forests has been recognised by categorisation as a UN Biosphere Reserve in 2013. Government regulations outlaw forms of forest exploitation such as logging and clear-felling, yet against this background deforestation and forest degradation continues (Sutcliffe et al. 2012). Forest beekeeping is widespread and a well-established activity for income generation, with large volumes of honey and beeswax traded in the area. The forest provides all the natural resources – bees, flowers, and hive-making materials - that are required.


The study was undertaken in The Body Shop’s honey supply areas. Primary data was collected through a household questionnaire involving sixty beekeepers, group discussions with farmer-led honey trading groups and interviews with key informants. Secondary data was also consulted. The honey supply locations have seen considerable forestry conservation and NTFP enterprise intervention in recent years. The NTFP-PFM Project 1 ran from 2003-2013, and is now continuing with new funding and a new name, REPAFMA 2 . This project was the source of important information about the status of Participatory Forest Management (PFM) agreements in the area.


Honey bee health and population status

“I always find adequate bee swarms occupying my hives as I expected.”

Nesiro Shifa, Gemechu

Honey bee health and population status were gauged only through beekeeper interviews. No population or health surveys were conducted. Results are shown in Table 1 *.

Beekeepers said that they have never observed symptoms of honey bee disease. Many beekeepers (more than half) considered that there were fewer swarms than usual this year– and some gave reasons which included the weather and normal yearly fluctuations. Others mentioned possible harm caused by chemicals used in plantations. When asked if there will be enough bees in the future, if the number of beekeepers increases, 45% expressed confidence that “bees reproduce – there will be enough”. Others were less certain (30%) or said they did not know (25%).

Impact of hive-making on availability of forestry resources

“It might seem a lot is extracted because of the hives we make - but it is balanced - what we put in - in terms of conservation - is greater than the taking out of hives.”

Chairperson, Shuno Begatti Honey Co-op

The Body Shop asked if hivemaking caused forest degradation.

Beekeepers in South West Ethiopia show great skill in hive making. Made with local and free materials like bamboo, vines, and twine, these hives make beekeeping accessible and financially rewarding for many. These hives were made by Gazao Likasa in Supe, Illubabor

There are two main types of beehives used in these forests. Yegilo are seasonal hives placed and taken down each year. These are made of hollowed out logs. Bajo are permanent hives and colonies remain from one year to the next. These are made from bamboo, grass, leaves and twine. Bamboo grows fast and is quickly replenished, therefore the study focussed on the making of yegilo log hives because trees are felled to make these hives.

By using the PFM database (REPAFMA 2016) we calculated that each household has access to 5 ha of forest. Beekeepers provided information about the size of trees harvested to make hives and preferred species. This data was combined with inventory data (Yilma et al 2010) to estimate that the forest can support a sustainable offtake of 4.8 suitable trees per ha. This means a potential offtake of 5x4.8 = 24 trees per year per household. We learned that each beekeeper makes 35 new yegilo each year, and 9.7 yegilo per tree. Both figures are derived from the questionnaire. This means that 3.6 trees are used per beekeeper. As the sustainable offtake is 24 trees per household per year this suggests that cutting trees for beehive making is well within the sustainable limit.

Conservation actions by individuals and communities

“You ask about how we take care of the forest. You do not need to ask - the evidence can be seen - the forest is here; the forest is the evidence”.

Belay Gerito, Gecha

The fact that forest beekeeping does not cause forest degradation is only part of the story. Where forest is under pressure, positive actions must be taken to combat or mitigate drivers of forest loss. Questions were asked about how individuals and communities protect trees.

Beekeepers said they were aware of the need to balance use with protection and the economic importance of forest for honey production is strongly understood. During the group discussions and the beekeeper questionnaire, many respondents gave positive, forthright comments describing their commitment to forest conservation. Some stated their love for forest more than anything else, “We love forest more than money”, while many explained that economic reasons motivated them, “Because the beekeepers benefit more from the forest than non-beekeepers through honey production”. According to the questionnaire results, hive ownership has increased by 70% in the last ten years, since The Body Shop started buying honey.

50% of respondents said that beekeepers are more committed to forest conservation than nonbeekeepers because of the economic gain derived from honey. Of those interviewed (all beekeepers) honey ranked among the top three most important sources of income, and for half the beekeepers, honey was their most important source of income. For teenagers and youngsters who are still living at home, forest beekeeping is their only opportunity for personal income as they have no farm or livestock of their own, and much of this income is spent on their education. 59 out of 60 people said that should the honey price rise further 3 , they would put yet more effort into forest conservation.

Individually 95% of all respondents said that they took some action to balance forest use with replacement. Strategies they employ to ensure harvested trees are replaced include:

• Planting trees

• Protecting seedlings from cattle, fire and competing vegetation

• Checking seedlings and saplings are emerging before felling larger trees

• Checking the direction of tree-felling to avoid crushing seedlings and saplings

• Leaving trees in farmland when forest is cleared for crops

• Taking care of coppice regrowth

• Taking care of yegilo so that they do not rot, and need not be replaced so often

70% of households in the study area are beekeeping households, and the cumulative actions of many individual beekeepers must make significant contribution to overall forest protection. However, if an individual protects a tree from fire, this does not stop another person from later cutting the tree down. For that to occur, forest management must occur also at institutional level.

There are two main institutional mechanisms which support forest management in the area: kobo and Participatory Forest Management (PFM).


Kobo is a forest land ownership system, devised so that beekeepers could stake a claim for places to hang bee hives. Of 49 kobo-holders, 40 (82%) said that they maintained their kobo primarily for honey, while 9 mentioned ‘land asset’ as the main motivating factor. Of the 50 respondents who answered this question, 11 (22%) said kobo was getting weaker, 6 (12%) said no change and 33 (66%) said it was getting stronger. Using kobo as a proxy indicator for honey-trade leading to forest conservation is a good one – but not a perfect one. A person who protects their kobo may be protecting their kobo from other beekeepers who wish to hang their bee hives, or may be protecting the kobo plot so they can use it for forest-coffee. A notable number of kobo-owners said their sons were in the future likely to maintain their kobo– another indicator of the security of the forest. Several respondents said that PFM had strengthened kobo because it legitimised this customary form of ownership – which is not recognised by government.

Participatory Forest Management

PFM agreements give people legal rights to their forest land, within certain guidelines. In all other instances, government does not recognise communities as legitimate owners of forest. The responsibility for managing PFM forests lies with a local Forest Management Association (FMA) and 36 out of 60 (60%) of people gave at least one concrete example of how they personally supported PFM, e.g. by volunteering their labour to patrol boundaries. Evidence that a community accepts PFM can be seen from people’s responses about the impact of coffee prices. Most respondents (78%) said that they thought it unlikely that people would replace forest with coffee, even if the coffee price increased – giving the following reasons:

• Because the forest is now under legal protection through PFM. Its boundary is demarcated and physically marked.

• Because the forest is now owned by communities under a PFM agreement and the agreement forbids changing of forest land into other uses.

• The forest in our village is managed under PFM. It is strictly forbidden by our PFM agreement to change the forest in to coffee plots.

Beekeepers on the way to the forest to hang hives. The hives have been stored in the forest


This study strongly supports the conclusion that forest beekeeping does not harm the environment. Unlike most forms of agriculture, forest beekeeping does not require land clearance and the principal resources which are harvested are nectar and pollen from flowers, which are readily replenished. Moreover, these resources are provided to bees as an incentive for them to visit flowers and bring about pollination. Collection of the resources, nectar and pollen, brings about pollination and thus secures biodiversity. In this way, forest beekeeping is not just harmless, it is beneficial to the environment.

Honey bee disease outbreaks, especially caused by exotic pathogens, are an increasing concern in industrialised countries. Yet honey bees have a range of genetically determined physiological and morphological characteristics which enable them to cope with and adapt to hazards such as pests, diseases, and environmental conditions. It is increasingly understood that lessintensively managed bees develop and maintain genetic fitness with greater success than intensively managed colonies (Lowore and Bradbear 2012).

On the question of bee health, the results indicate that the bees are symptom-free. This is as expected and consistent with widespread evidence that Apis mellifera populations across sub-Saharan Africa are healthy – largely because of the bees are living extensively, and not intensively. There is a close correlation between honey bee health and type of management, and Ethiopian forest beekeepers are at the natural end of the spectrum, which ensures genetic fitness and honey bee well-being.

Young beekeeper being interviewed. Hanging hives requires no capital, and for many boys, beekeeping is a source of income they can start while in school – and can help pay for fees and school books

Sustainability of hive-making

At the current rate of usage, hive-making is well below the sustainable harvesting rate of trees used for hives. There is no evidence to suggest that hivemaking causes forest degradation.

Whole forest management and protection

Beekeepers take a range of individual actions to ensure that the use of trees for hivemaking is balanced with the rate of replenishment, and these actions are extremely important in maintaining the forest. The forest is however under threat from competing land uses, both small-scale crop-growing, and large-scale plantation agriculture. At community level, local respect for kobo is significant and appears to be largely driven by the value people place on the forest for honey production. Yet kobo is not a system recognised by government and has no legal backing. This is where PFM is important. PFM protects forests from outside interests and forest clearance. PFM gives local people recognition as the legitimate owners of the forest, for the first time, provided they abide by an agreed set of rules. In Anderacha and Masha, evidence to date suggests PFM has been successful. Evidence for its success has been falling deforestation rates (NTFP-PFM 2013) and testimonials from respondents.

It is important to note that local support for PFM is not driven by honey alone. People see their forest as an asset – but in the future the actual economic benefit derived from that asset may change. If the honey market collapsed, local people would still want their land – as perhaps another economic opportunity may emerge e.g. coffee or spices. Without PFM, the government may allocate forest land to private investors to establish tea, rubber or coffee plantations, so depriving local people of this asset. This is a very important consideration.

The link between honey trade and the motivations and mechanisms for forest conservation

Beekeepers recognise the value of forest for honey production and take actions to protect forest – both individually and at community level. Yet forests are maintained for many reasons, not just honey. This makes it hard to attribute falling deforestation rates in PFM forests to increased honey trade alone. There are other contributing factors.

One way to make a direct and incontrovertible link between honey trade and forest conservation is to invest the financial proceeds of honey trade into forest management. And there are examples of this in Anderacha. The Shuno-Begatti Honey Marketing Co-operative is a beekeeper-run group that buys and sells honey. They have an institutional link with their local Forest Management Association who have responsibility for managing their PFM forest, which is the source of their honey. Shuno- Begatti buy and sell honey and make profit, which is distributed to members. A percentage is retained and passed on to the FMA to help them to cover the costs associated with forest management. This is an example of a direct and traceable link between honey trade and forest maintenance.

Bees for Development concludes that forest beekeeping does not cause forest degradation, and honey trade provides an economic incentive for local people to take forest protection actions at both individual and community level. Participatory Forest Management gives local people governmentrecognised rights to use and protect their forests, especially from private investment. Honey production is one reason – but not the only one – why local people support PFM. Supporting honey co-ops such as Shuno Begatti which provide financial support to PFM, can strengthen the link between honey trade and forest conservation. However, such co-ops do not handle large quantities of honey. We suggest that there might be ways for other honey trading channels to make a financial contribution to PFM. The easiest and obvious way would be for honey traders and trading groups to pay a forest conservation support fee to their local FMA. If this were voluntary, it might avoid being seen as a tax which would probably be very unpopular and perhaps counterproductive. Another way to strengthen the link might be for The Body Shop to give an annual Honey Forests Conservation Award to the FMA which most strongly demonstrated their forest conservation achievements.

Thick forest in Anderacha. The main honey tree is Schefflera abyssinica. Interestingly this is an epiphyte and starts its life cycle growing on other trees, and will eventually grow into a tree up 30m tall.


Lowore, J. and Bradbear, N. 2012. Extensive beekeeping. Bees for Development Journal, 103, June 2012.

NTFP-PFM South-West Ethiopia, Forested landscapes, and livelihood project. 2013. End of Project Evaluation Report. ENV 2006 114- 229. Submitted to SLA and its partners by LTS International Ltd. 5th October 2013

REPAFMA, 2016. Database of Participatory Forest Management forest blocks with status and area.

Sutcliffe, P., Wood, A. and Meaton, J. 2012. Competitive forests – making forests sustainable in south-west Ethiopia, International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 19:6, 471-481

Yilma, Z., Yohannes, T. and Sutcliffe, P. 2010. Forest inventory Ethiopian Montane Cloud Forest, Mizan Teferi, January 2010. An NTFP-PFM Project Report.


We commend The Body Shop for initiating this important study and for their continuing commitment to sourcing honey and beeswax from beekeeping communities in Africa. We thank Mr Biniyam Abebe for his excellent field work, and staff of REPAFMA for advice and information.