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Appropriate beekeeping technology in Central Africa

by D Wainwright

Central Africa has a widespread tradition of producing large quantities of honey and wax and the region remains the major supplier of beeswax to the world market. Most of this wax is produced from traditional hives despite recent efforts to make modern and intermediate technology hives available to small-scale producers. In many cases traditional technology remains the most profitable to the beekeeper. Why do beekeepers prefer to continue with traditional hives? The answer lies in the economic characteristics of the different technologies, the labour and investment requirements and the effect of ecological conditions. Using this information a theoretical model can be constructed to allow comparison between incomes to the beekeeper. Using data from North-Western Zambia the model shows that beekeeping with traditional hives is more profitable except in extremely favourable conditions. This accounts for the popularity of bark hive beekeeping and the failure of modern beekeeping in the area.

In the North West Province of Zambia beekeeping is a traditional activity: using hives made entirely of materials gathered from forests beekeepers are able to produce beeswax on a large scale. In the 19th and early 20th centuries beeswax production was the main industry of the region and supplied colonialist powers with a much needed raw material. Production was by the thousands of small-scale, part-time beekeepers for whom the wax was a valuable commodity to exchange for manufactured items. Beekeeping also produced honey. As much honey as possible was made into the famous honey beer, but during plentiful seasons beekeepers had no alternative but to squeeze honey onto the forest floor, keeping only the wax. The bees would soon find the honey and “recycle” it.

By 1978 the beekeeping industry had declined in the area and was only practised by a dwindling population of older men. At that time an Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) was being established at Kabompo by the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Development with the assistance of the German Agency for Technical Co- operation, GTZ. The entire local population felt that beekeeping was an underutilised resource: revitalisation of beekeeping was a priority.

After analysing the situation the IRDP implemented a project to help increase incomes from beekeeping. The existing bark hive technology proved to be an adequate base to enable the beekeepers to expand production and attract new recruits to their groups. The major constraint was lack of access both locally and overseas to major markets for honey. A mobile system was therefore set up to provide easy access to a marketing point. Producer prices were made attractive and responsive to the market situation. This system eventually took the form of a limited company owned jointly by the beekeepers and District Councils, to ensure continued profitability and local accountability. Results so far have been positive, with honey production and the number of participating beekeepers increasing.

Attempts to introduce modern technology: experts proved wrong

Initial plans to increase benefits to the rural poor through beekeeping had assumed that this could be done only by substituting the traditional hive design with more modern technology: the box hive. This approach has been implemented in many African countries and is often official government policy. However the results were unsatisfactory, the small-scale producer was unable to operate the new technology profitably without support from loans, subsidies and technical assistance. Most of these hives are now abandoned or put to a different use.

Traditional beekeeping produces the majority of honey and wax in Africa today and virtually all subsistence farmers and beekeepers use this technology. Where the beekeeper is in a position to make a choice, the traditional technology has proved the most profitable in terms of the return for labour and capital invested. Income from traditional beekeeping is less dependent on optimum environmental conditions making it profitable even in marginal areas and producing income during poor seasons when beekeepers with modern hives would make a loss. Modem technology remains the most productive and profitable for larger scale operations which are provided with adequate investment and appropriate management.

Beekeeping and life-style

For beekeepers of North West Province, beekeeping is not only a source of income, it is also a way of life. Therefore the decision to adopt a new technology is not made on purely financial grounds. If beekeepers take up a new technology their whole way of life will change. It is obvious that traditional beekeeping has cultural value: traditional beekeeping is carried out in small camps deep in the bush, the beekeepers spend several weeks there cropping honey and the evenings are spent round the campfire drinking honey beer and talking. The worries and problems of the village are far away. Modern beekeeping on the other hand takes place near the home, the hives are valuable and must be checked every day. It is a different way of life which does not seem so attractive to these beekeepers.

Environmental variations and honey production

Honey production is dependent on many factors beyond beekeepers’ control and variations of ±100% are usually due to environmental factors, which in Zambia appear to follow a cycle of approximately four years. To some extent the beekeeper tries to minimise the effect of variations through management techniques, however variations in honey production and occupation of hives will occur in even the best managed apiaries.

Some causes of low occupation rates are absconding of colonies because of fires and attacks by ants, honey badgers and thieves. The bark hive beekeeper minimises these risks by placing hives over a wide area, suspended high in trees to avoid fires and deter enemies. However, for box hive beekeepers to carry out essential management, hives have to be at ground level in a group conveniently near to habitation. This means that the entire apiary is at risk of destruction through attacks by enemies, fire and thieves and much of the beekeepers’ activities are aimed at preventing this.

Patterns of labour requirement

For the potential of box hives to be utilised fully they must be managed intensively. Only in this way may a higher level of production per colony be achieved than is possible with bark hives. The labour which a beekeeper invests in an apiary will vary according to the hive occupation rate and the average production per colony. The bark hive beekeeper expends most labour in cropping, transporting and processing: this is directly related to production. The box hive beekeeper expends most labour in managing the colonies: this is directly related to the hive occupation rate. Other labour, loan repayments and depreciation will be constant and independent of variations in production and occupation.

Which bee hive gives the best income?

Ideally this question should be answered on the basis of results from controlled trials of the different technologies carried out over a number of years in conditions appropriate to the target group of beekeepers. However this data is not available: the only method to determine the income to the beekeeper is to construct a model based on the writer's experience with box and bark hives in Zambia, and an understanding of beekeeping using the different technologies. The few independent records available are also used.

In order to compare the net incomes from bark hives and box hives the different labour and investment requirements must be considered as well as the sensitivity of net income to variations in occupation rates and production per hive.

The analysis shown in Table 1 compares the bark hive to the top-bar hive. Frame hives are not commercially available at unsubsidised prices in Zambia and would cost at least twice as much as a top-bar hive. Non-essential purchased equipment such as smokers and veils are not considered. It is assumed that the box hive is purchased with a soft loan repayable over ten years at zero interest and that all occupied hives are cropped. The calculations are for.an average part-time operation (100 days of work per year) with 24 box hives or 100 bark hives.

Comparison of incomes from bark and box hives

From the data shown in Table 1* for costs and labour requirements and the ‘value of comb honey harvested, it is possible to calculate the beekeeper’s theoretical income per day worked. This allows comparison between the incomes from the two technologies under different environmental conditions.

Curves (a) and (c) on Figure 1* show the different combinations of occupation rate and amount of honey cropped necessary to yield an income of K12.00 per day, the average casual labour rate in Zambia. For the box hive the break even point is also indicated (b): at levels below this curve the beekeeper would make a net loss.

Curve (c) shows that to make an average wage the box hive beekeeper needs to achieve exceptionally high yields. According to experience the Zambian box hive beekeeper can expect to crop 40% of hives each year with a yield of 21.6 kg comb honey per hive '. According to the model this would result in a large loss: to secure an average income at this rate of occupancy a production of 40 kg per hive is necessary.

The bark hive beekeeper will almost certainly receive an income exceeding K12.00/day provided 20% of hives can be cropped. Even when only 10% of hives are cropped the average income will be exceeded provided hive yields exceed 10kg per colony. Average recorded productions from bark hives are 6.9-8.5 kg with 12.5-18% of hives cropped¹ ². This corresponds to an income of K13.00 and K14.35/day respectively.

* Please see the original journal article for Table 1. Comparison of costs and labour requirements of bark and box hives.

* Please see the original journal article for Figure 1. Daily net income possible from box and bark hives according to hive occupation and productivity,

Constraints on production of honey from bark hives


The traditional beekeeper usually produces honey for beer brewing whereas most external markets are for table honey. The producer has to be brewing.

Natural resources

Bark hive making destroys the very trees which the beekeeper needs for honey production. Therefore sufficient areas of forest are required to sustain hive-making activities and provide forage for the bees. However bark hive beekeeping in Zambia ranks as a very minor and selective use of the forest resource and is not responsible for deforestation. On the contrary the bark hive beekeepers are the foremost guardians of the forest from which they receive their livelihood.

Research is needed to maximise productivity of bark hive beekeeping

In order to maximise production the bark hive beekeepers’ activities must be Planned according to the economic characteristics of the technology, which will differ greatly from those of the box hive. Previously there has been the tendency amongst extension workers to Carry over assumptions relevant to box hives. There is a need to develop adapted bark hive management techniques based on properly controlled field trials.

Limiting factors

Production in a good year is often limited by the labour required to carry honey to the marketing Point. This can be solved by organisation of beekeepers into large groups and construction of tracks to allow manufacturing bark hives to ensure a high ratio of uncropped : cropped hives.

Honey for the bees

The box hive beekeeper tries to ensure that bees survive the dearth season by leaving some honey or by feeding. For the bark hive beekeeper a better policy might be to crop a small proportion of the hives but transport of the honey by vehicle.

Cropping ratio

The beekeeper with many hives occupied is unable to crop them all. This means that a hive might stay two to five years without cropping. During this time large reserves of honey can accumulate and many swarms are produced to occupy other empty hives. The opposite situation where a beekeeper crops all the hives, including new occupations, is not so productive.


The most costeffective activity is the construction of hives. To take full advantage of the possibilities of the technology the beekeeper should invest time in to harvest all the combs from these colonies. This would leave many colonies undisturbed and give a greater assurance of the survival of sufficient swarming colonies.

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

2  WENDORF, H (1987) Peasant beekeepers and the impact of IRDP in Zambia's North Western Province - Zambezi District. Berlin, GFR; Free University