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The search for appropriate beekeeping technology

by B Svensson

There is a Swedish saying that if you sample 100 beekeepers you will find 100 inventors of beekeeping technology and as many different ways of managing honeybees. From an international viewpoint this saying is also very true when looking at traditional or self-taught beekeepers. Modern beekeeping systems use standardised methods and equipment. Such modern systems are often transferred regardless of the great variation in conditions for beekeeping in different countries or areas. In this article I will discuss the consequences of the lack of appropriate technology that result from careless technology transfer in tropical and subtropical beekeeping.

Traditional beekeeping

Beekeeping in its real sense first developed when honey hunters in different Parts of the world learnt to maintain Colonies of bees in fixed-comb hives. Traditional beekeeping systems were very appropriate to the conditions where they developed.

Generally speaking, traditional beekeeping systems can be characterised as follows:

a) Traditional beekeepers use cheap, local materials (whatever is available) to produce their equipment.

b) Traditional beekeepers are not used to making investments and use very few tools.

c) Almost all traditional systems build on a concept of minimal management. The beekeepers prepare the hives and place them in a suitable locality where they are left without management until the time of honey harvest.

d) With few exceptions honey is harvested only once a year, and very often the colony is destroyed or severely damaged in the process.

e) The traditional beekeeper is normally found among the rural poor and has no formal education or capital resources. Beekeeping know-how has been transferred by word of mouth within the society or through individual trial and error experiments.

f) The output per bee colony is very low, compared to the potential output in advanced beekeeping under the same conditions. The beekeeper sometimes compensates for this by using a greater number of traditional bee hives. Traditional beekeepers accept that their products may often be of low quality: consumption is usually local and immediate.

g) Product prices are often very low except in societies where honey is held in high regard, for instance as a medicine.

Modern beekeeping

The Langstroth and Dadant standards totally dominate the world market, but some European standards (Russian, Zander, British Standard, German Normal-frame etc.) can also be found in very odd circumstances. Modern beekeeping systems can be characterised as follows:

a) Modern beekeeping builds on a large input of comparatively expensive and sophisticated equipment that is normally delivered from specialised producers.

b) This equipment is designed for rational and mechanised production on a commercial scale, and large investments are therefore often required to set up an operation.

c) Modern beekeepers can, and have to manage their colonies intensively throughout the season using movable-frame hives to strive for maximum productivity.

d) Cars and other transport are often used to make use of different nectar flows (or pollination) and to prolong the season as much as possible.

e) The beekeeper is often very well trained and has know-how ranging from bee botany and biology to mechanical engineering and business management.

f) The modern beekeeper is striving for maximum output, highest productivity and optimum quality of products.

g) Product prices are often comparatively high in modern beekeeping and beekeepers sometimes involve themselves in the marketing of products during the off-season.

Developing countries are still dependent on industrialised countries for technology transfer, and there is generally a pronounced desire amongst decision makers to look for high technology solutions to development problems. This desire coincides with the efforts from high technology producers to increase their export sales. Authorities in developed countries also support such efforts to increase exports. Modern beekeeping as described above is an example of such ‘high technology’.

The indiscriminate spread of modern beekeeping technology to developing countries is helping to consolidate the dependence of poor countries on rich donors. It can also be said to hamper development towards a new economic world order and true independence for developing countries.

Such beekeeping development must be inappropriate for its purpose. Many examples can be listed where for instance comb foundation, Langstroth hives and centrifugal extractors have been imported to countries where it was inadvisable from biological, technological, social and economical points of view.

Intermediate beekeeping

It is always advisable to strive for a continuous development process starting from the old traditions already in existence through successive improvements towards a beekeeping technology that is appropriate for its purposes.

Such intermediate steps have been taken in many different countries. In a few cases they have been shown to be very successful and have even spread to other countries, for example the Greek hive with top-bars, the Kenya top-bar hive and the African long hive. But in most other cases, beekeepers that use intermediate hives and techniques have had difficulties in succeeding on a large scale. Sometimes such experiments have even been forgotten although very promising results were achieved at the research stage. Reasons for such failures could be:

1. Lack of communication between research workers and practical beekeepers.

2. Many different parties involved in beekeeping efforts and lack of cooperation between them.

3. Poor contacts between agencies in developing countries and the corresponding donor agencies in industrialised countries.

4. High rate of circulation of personnel within different agencies.

Inappropriate beekeeping technology

The list of countries where inappropriate beekeeping technologies have been tried could be very depressing. We can find examples of both traditional, intermediate and modern beekeeping in development projects, that are inappropriate under certain conditions.

A particular beekeeping project could be burdened by inappropriate technology if any of the following signs are visible:

1. Productivity among beekeepers is unexpectedly low.

2. Beekeepers are not willing to repay loans.

3. Beekeepers are not trying to expand their activities on their own.

4. Traditional beekeepers or other persons do not voluntarily adopt the practices suggested by beekeeping project members.

5. Beekeeping advisors or extension workers are not starting up as beekeepers on their own.

Below are listed a few examples of what can go wrong when inappropriate technology has been chosen:

a) The climate

• cracks between the hive parts, too large an entrance or artificial ventilation will cause great trouble for the bees under hot or very humid climatic conditions

• hives placed on the ground will easily be spoiled in areas susceptible to flooding or with heavy rainfall

• talking about ‘cold' or ‘warm‘ orientation of frames is useless in nontemperate areas

• storage of used combs is almost impossible due to the wax moth problem in hot climates

• water feeding of bees is often neglected in hot climates.

b) Food resources for the bees

• incorrect opinions about where and when bees collect nectar and pollen are very common

• lack of understanding of the biology of honeybees is very common

• suitable feeding equipment is very rare

• sugar feeding outside the hive is common, and provokes robbing

• understanding of the importance of pre-season and after-harvest feeding is very rare

• many colonies die or abscond during the off-season due to food shortage

• many hives are often painted in the same colour and oriented in the same direction, which encourages drifting of individual bees and robbing

• too many colonies are placed in each apiary.

c) Honeybees used

• indefensible interest in importation of Apis mellifera bees

• equipment meant for A. mellifera is commonly used for other species (see under (d) below)

• lack of knowledge about the proper importance of appropriate hive design for the local bees, to control diseases, swarming, absconding, and honey quality

• general mismanagement of the bees.

d) Hives and other equipment

• hives made of wood are often unable to resist termites or moisture

• hives are placed on the ground or on unsuitable stands

• swarm catcher boxes are often placed too near the ground

• cracks in the hives force the bees to waste time on defensive behaviour, fanning or robbing

• expensive and wasteful use of wood in constructing eg hive stands, dovetailed boxes, or Hoffman spacing of frames

• imported comb foundation of incorrect dimensions

• imported plastic equipment; for example frames of varying dimensions, or propolis grids to countries where propolis production is not feasible

• entrance boards that invite parasites and predators

• incorrect or variable hive dimensions and the bee space on top instead of below frames

• importation of queen excluders of the size needed by European bees

• importation of frames or boxes for odd European standards (sometimes even frames without boxes)

• expensive importation of accessory tools such as smokers, hive tools, bee brushes, veils and overalls that could easily have been produced locally or may not even be necessary

• electrical extractors given to the rural poor who have no access to electricity

• electrical extractors given

• use of frames although comb foundation is not available.

e) Methods of bee management

• regular inspection of hives or regular honey extraction is taught even where unnecessary or impossible

• ‘school-book' management without adaptation to local conditions

• temperate zone beekeeping management practices under tropical conditions

• lack of hive inspection, or mismanagement of bees and equipment from a hygienic or economic point of view

• extraction of uncapped or unripe honey, sometimes even centrifugal extraction of combs without use of uncapping tools.

f) Pests, diseases and poisoning

• unwarranted trust in any kind of drug, leading to misuse of drugs

• very little knowledge of bee biology or pathology and therefore no understanding of the biological measures and management practices needed to keep healthy bees

• introduction of new strains of bees with the risk of introducing pests and diseases

• incorrect hive design that invites predators

• inappropriate siting of colonies or lack of water that can lead to severe pesticide damage.

g) Human attitudes

• lack of proper knowledge and technical experience will often lead to mismanagement

• management of modern equipment with traditional methods

• dependency on assistance from instructors

• unjustified reliance on tools, protective equipment and vehicles for success in beekeeping

• too much attention given to small details of beekeeping while greater problems are disregarded

• women are often considered to be unsuitable as beekeepers for many different reasons (for instance because they are not meant to climb trees)

• literature in bookshops is generally not appropriate for the local conditions

• staff of foreign donor agencies are often biased about what kind of beekeeping is profitable under all conditions.

The above list of misconceptions in beekeeping development is incomplete. But to summarise, | would like to say that it is a great scandal that such a lot of hope, interest, energy and effort is lost because of all these misconceptions!

Appropriate beekeeping technology

Since natural conditions vary so much (eg climate, bees, flora, resources, socio- economic conditions), it is very important to identify the most appropriate technology choice in each particular situation. Before taking any steps towards changing an existing beekeeping system or before introducing beekeeping to a new area or a group of the population, it is always advisable to undertake very careful investigations i.e. a feasibility study.

Drescher and Crane (1982 Technical cooperation activities: beekeeping. A directory and guide) give a very detailed suggestion for what elements should be included in such a feasibility study. In addition to their suggestions would I add the importance of collecting facts on the socio-economic situation in the target area. For instance:

a) Where are the present beekeepers and what incomes, standards of living and education do they have?

b) How is the income, the land and the political power distributed among people in the target area?

c) What could be the socio-economic consequences of a beekeeping project within different groups of the population?

d) Which part of the population would benefit most from beekeeping development? Which target group should be chosen?

When the feasibility study is ready and the target group has been selected, the Project can go on with experiments in a small pilot project, and after a few years further evaluations can guide the project on a larger scale. Only at this stage can a profitable beekeeping system be ready to be distributed among people on a wide scale.

Consequently, honey and wax, as well as agricultural production will increase to the benefit of poor farmers, landless people and the whole of society.


Identifying technology appropriate for beekeeping development programmes becomes easier when planners have a deep understanding of the biology of honeybees, and of the socio-economic and cultural implications of different technologies. A worldwide interchange of information on the successes and failures in beekeeping development would also be of great value in the search for appropriate beekeeping technology.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

This article is abbreviated from the paper given by Mr Svensson at the Fourth International Conference on Apiculture in Tropical Climates in Cairo last November. The full paper will be published in the Conference Proceedings, available shortly from IBRA.