4 minute read

Empowering beekeepers who live with disability: How can a blind person keep bees?

Sean Lawson, Project Manager, Bees for Development

“People would ask, how can a blind person keep bees?” Since 2006, Jennifer has been unable to see. “At first, this was incredibly difficult to accept,” she told me during my visit in August 2019, “however I’m now coming to terms with it.”

As a widow with young children, Jennifer’s independence was everything to her. However, when she became visually impaired, she could no longer move freely around the house, get her children ready for school, or work to provide for the family. These were heavy burdens for someone who had been unexpectedly thrust into the role of head of the household.

When I first met Jennifer, I was amazed by the progress, courage and resolve that she has demonstrated with her beekeeping over the last few years. Jennifer is one of fifteen severely visually impaired people involved in the Project that Bees for Development is running in partnership with The Uganda National Apiculture Development Organisation.

Jennifer Abalo working in her apiary
A mobility line set up in an apiary – the stick warns visually impaired beekeepers that they are one metre away from the hive.
© Images Bees for Development

Jennifer was sceptical at first. “When I was first approached by Hive Uganda (one of the Project partners), I thought to myself, how can someone who is visually impaired be a beekeeper?” This mindset is not uncommon among people with visual impairments, who sometimes feel there is little that they can contribute, or that they are a burden to their families.

This led me to rethink what it means to be a beekeeper. In the UK, we tend to purchase hives at great expense, whereas beekeepers in Uganda often make their own hives. Is one more of a beekeeper than the other? Ultimately, keeping bees is about making decisions: what is best for your bees? How can you care for them? When should you harvest? 

Being physically able to build a hive or lift it on to its stand is not as important as we might think. Nobody would dispute that Francois Huber, one of the 19th Century’s greatest entomologists, was a beekeeper, despite not being able to see. Although Jennifer works closely with her father and her bees are on his land, she is the key decision maker when it comes to managing the hives and ensuring that the bees thrive. Jennifer has help, though her helper merely assists her through her activities and physically helps when needed - rather than instructing her.

Trustworthy helpers are important and necessary in some areas, however it is the beekeeper who makes the decisions. For example, the beekeeper instructs their helper on when they should inspect their hives, how they want their apiary set up, and where they will sell the honey or beeswax, and for what price.

Accessing her own hives, listening to the sound of the bees, assessing the condition of her apiary, all these activities are possible for Jennifer since she received training in how best to establish an apiary to facilitate her movement. She has been trained to arrange an apiary with wellspaced, correctly orientated hives and, with the help of her family, install a new mobility string line to give her the freedom of independent movement around her hives.

Bees for Development is pioneering an inclusive approach to working with beekeepers and reaching the most marginalised communities. We are demonstrating to mainstream organisations that inclusivity is possible, necessary and important.

While the physical difficulties presented by disability are more obvious, it is hard to quantify the mental and social effects of living with a disability. With visual impairment comes the social stigma of being disregarded and overlooked in the community, and this often takes its toll on the self-esteem and selfworth of visually impaired people. Our Beekeeping to Economically Empower People with Disabilities Project (BEEPWD) aims to break down these barriers and change perceptions in relevant and accessible ways, consulting the visually impaired in focus groups and asking them to develop appropriate training materials, for example, visual learning aids for deaf beekeepers and audio guides for the visually impaired.

It might be asked: why the focus on the deaf and visually impaired, as opposed to say, an amputee? Being deaf or visually impaired leaves people with seemingly insurmountable communication barriers that require that extra bit of help to start beekeeping: for example to access appropriate training materials, and even reaching training events in the first place.

Just as it is difficult to quantify the negative mental and social effects of disability, so too, is it hard to measure precisely the positive effects of feeling empowered and gaining a sense of greater respect within the family and community. Jennifer feels a great sense of satisfaction from being a source of advice and expertise in her field. She is sought out by others in the community for her knowledge, and inspires those who may perceive their disabilities as a hindrance in ventures of this kind.

Jennifer welcomes visits to her apiary so that other visually impaired people realise that beekeeping is possible for them. She plans to add value to her beeswax products, including harvesting propolis and producing cosmetics from beeswax. And Jennifer wants to expand her apiary: “I can accept who I am”, she said with quiet confidence.

Okello Patrick understanding how to make a double boiler to melt beeswax for hive baiting
Kibwata Francis baits a hive using beeswax

Bees for Development gratefully acknowledge funding support from the National Lottery Community Fund UK for this Project.