5 minute read

Visual Learning Aids and Beekeeping

Darcy Gray, Beekeeping Specialist, Project Renitantely, SEED Madagascar, Fort Dauphin, Madagascar

SEED Madagascar is a sustainable development organisation in southeast Madagascar taking a holistic approach to diversifying livelihoods and incentivising conservation practice. One Project, Renitantely (means honey bee in Malagasy), empowers farmers to conserve the indigenous honey bee race Apis mellifera unicolor through education and the financial incentives of honey and wax production. To effectively communicate beekeeping skills and biology to an often-illiterate audience who lack formal education, the team has developed Visual Learning Aids to explain concepts using creative imagery and few words.


The Project is training 78 beekeepers from six communities, Fokontany, in the Anosy region. In this region, wild and managed colonies are suffering dramatic losses from Varroa destructor, compounded by widespread deforestation which eliminates forage for the bees.

Training workshops

To give beekeepers robust beekeeping skills, the Project runs workshops in each community on:

• Hive construction

• The life cycle of the honey bee

• Populating hives

• Keeping healthy colonies

• Disease and pest management

• Honey and wax harvesting

In a VLA designed by Harriet Stigler, the changing jobs of honey bees in a hive are depicted alongside typical responsibilities of Malagasy women
Drawings © Harriet Stigler

One VLA shows the life cycle of Varroa
Drawings © Harriet Stigler

These workshops are planned by the Project team including Malagasy and international staff who work to integrate global best practice with cultural context. The team’s technicians deliver the workshops with dynamic presentations encouraging discussion and questions.

Illiteracy and education

The literacy rate in rural communities of this region is 41%. This presents a challenge for the Renitantely team since the Project strives for the training workshops to have lasting educational benefits yet is unable to give written resources for people to use later.

Few people in these rural areas have completed school, as none of the six communities has a high school. Therefore it is unfair to expect the baseline understanding of biology assumed by many beekeeping training resources.

Visual learning aids

In 2016 the team came up with a creative solution to use innovative educational resources with easily understandable imagery to communicate beekeeping concepts to an illiterate audience.

Harriet Stigler worked as the international beekeeping specialist during the Project’s first year; she advocated the use of Visual Learning Aids (VLAs) and started researching the topics and drawing them. “Paper is a precious resource in the remote bush and we found that a simple diagram would quickly be repurposed to use as rolling paper or fuel. Using detailed, colourful drawings not only helped to overcome language and literacy barriers, but they helped also to engage audiences and were taken care of long-term,” she explains.

The beekeeping year
Drawings © Darcy Gray

How to use sugar to monitor Varroa in the hive
Drawings © Harriet Stigler

A VLA shows how to make a frame feeder filled with sugar water, specifically designed using an old rum bottle and other accessible materials
Drawings © Darcy Gray

The VLAs are now used in all of Project Renitantely’s training workshops, and everyone receives laminated copies to take home. Designing these technical VLAs involves breaking the process down into simple steps that can be diagrammed in an intuitive image. Using little or no writing, the first set of VLAs demonstrate concepts about the life cycle of the honey bee and other basics of beekeeping. The next set shows beekeepers the Varroa mite and the effects of infestation. Now the team has rolled out two additional sets of VLAS explaining methods to populate hives and how to maintain a healthy colony.

Considering cultural context

The most challenging and fascinating aspect of designing VLAs is that to be effective, they must consider the unique cultural and educational context of the Anosy region. Often the best way for people to learn about a new concept is to have it described in familiar terms. The VLAs attempt to do this in ways specific to the region. For example, one VLA shows the changing jobs of worker bees with age in relation to common jobs of rural Malagasy women. During the training workshops, this often leads to lots of laughter and helps people to see beekeeping from their own point of view. According to Stigler, the educational drawings were a source of humour which created a great atmosphere in meetings and a supportive learning environment.

Another challenge is that to offer sustainable education, the images must depict materials that can be constructed or found locally. For example, the VLA demonstrating capturing a swarm does not depict a plastic or high-tech queen cage, but rather a mint box with holes drilled into it, as this is what local beekeepers use as a queen cage. In this way, the Project tries to take advantage of local knowledge, learning how people traditionally perform a beekeeping task and what materials are used. This ensures that the beekeepers will find them realistic enough to be helpful.

VLAs and gender

An important aspect of the Project is to empower women through the use of beekeeping as a sustainable livelihood. Seventy-one percent of our newest cohort of beekeepers are women, and the Project includes gender equity workshops. In Madagascar beekeeping is less gendered than other occupations yet is still viewed largely a man’s activity. There is a misconception among rural communities here that women are afraid of bees and incapable of climbing trees to gather a swarm or perform other beekeeping activities. To encourage women in the Project and reinforce the point that anyone can be a beekeeper, the team designed the new class of VLAs to depict women beekeepers. The aim is for participants to repeatedly see the image of a woman completing these activities which will help erode stereotypes and give women confidence to pursue beekeeping.

Making sure to depict only materials which are available to beekeepers locally, this VLA shows how to capture a swarm and cage the queen
Drawings © Darcy Gray
In a community apiary local beekeeping technician Victoire uses the VLA to describe how to capture a wild colony
Drawings © Darcy Gray

As a reference for beekeepers to understand how to keep healthy colonies, this VLA points out elements of a good bee hive compared to a bad one. A fence to keep out animals and birds, no holes or cracks, and elevated hive base are all good
Drawings © Darcy Gray


During the Project’s most recent survey, all the beekeepers responded positively about the VLAs, that they are helpful both for learning the topics and for reference. Alfons, a Project beekeeper in the Fokontany of Sainte Luce, said he used the step-bystep guides outlined in the VLAs to remind him how to correctly split a colony without assistance.

Children attend a workshop where VLAs are used to explain bee hive maintenance We are eager to share these resources with other organisations and would love to hear about other uses of VLAs in beekeeping. Please contact darcy.gray@seedmadagascar.org if you are interested!
Drawings © Darcy Gray