7 minute read

Problems with bees

by Horst Wendorf

TRADITIONAL CUSTOMS of honey hunting and keeping bees in bark hives provide thousands of small-scale farmers in the Project area with considerable income from sales of honey beer (mbote). 


Bark hive beekeeping and honey gathering are methods that cannot be developed further because of limitations regarding quality, yields and workloads. Moreover these methods are destructive: trees are usually cut for a small amount of honey, and debarked trees die. With increasing loss of woodlands through charcoal burning and agricultural use, beekeeping is becoming more difficult. 

We must ask how long these traditional systems will be sustainable.


Local craftsmen are now manufacturing top- bar hives, swarm boxes, protective veils, bellows smokers, queen cages and other items. Farmers were trained in beekeeping and received loans to start their own hives.


Attempts to become more commercially orientated were hampered by unforeseen obstacles. It is well-known that the local bee, Apis mellifera adansonii, has high tendency for absconding. It migrates easily to other areas where there is more food, and it does not store very large amounts of honey. Such features are not welcomed by beekeepers. Nevertheless, years of experience in Zambia have shown that with good management, colonies can be kept over many years and will regularly give good honey yields.

If beekeeper wants to expand numbers there are three basic methods:

- Dig out wild colonies from holes, ant hills, or remove the bees from cavities, under roofs or from workshops.

It is even possible to use well-established colonies hanging from tree branches.

These methods are the least successful because the combs usually break when they are removed and often the bees abscond during the operation. If the queen has been caught and caged (which is at best difficult and at worst impossible), the subsequent rate of absconding is very high. Out of ten colonies caught in this way, usually about two continue to develop as colony inside the hive.

- Catching bee clusters.

This method is more fruitful as the bees are normally in more passive mood. They can be easily brushed from any place or shaken from branches into cardboard boxes. Catching the queen is an easy task. If she is initially confined, the bees will not leave. The box is put into sack and transported to the hive site. However, there are many problems with the occupation of the hive particularly if no brood and honeycombs from other colonies are available. The absconding rate is also high

- Suspending empty swarm boxes 3-5m above ground in the branches of trees.

This is the most successful way of getting colonies started in hives. Depending on the season and location it might take hours or months until box becomes occupied. There is no hard or fast rule. Once the bees have entered and settled the best time to collect the boxes is dusk. The entrances are closed, the box is carried to the hive site and by next morning the bees are used to their new environment. To ensure smooth transition, the swarm box is usually left on top of the new hive for some days before the combs, togethr~ with the bees, are transferred into the hi

It is essential to check the suspended top- bar hive swarm boxes every week. If the box is collected too early and the bees have not built combs or have not developed larvae or brood, the risk of subsequent absconding is again high.

If the bees have remained for long period, the combs may be big and might even have honey, leading to breakages during transport. The emerging mess of broken combs and mashed honey and brood is also not favourable. However, if everything works well the absconding rate is very low


What are the obstacles to starting many new bees with colonies? If there are enough swarm boxes available why should there be a problem? The answer is simple: it takes time. The 25 swarm boxes used by the Project remained unoccupied for nearly half year. This was probably due to the prevailing drought which caused low reproduction during the previous swarming season.

There are certain times of year when swarms or clusters appear in bulk. The two swarming seasons are April and October. During these periods there are mainly reproductive swarms. At the end of the rainy season in February plenty of bee clusters emerge, flooded and driven out by late rains from their easily accessible nesting sites. July is the cold season when there is little food. This leads to many clusters of bees in search of greener pastures and warmer places. In between times there are the rough cropping methods used by traditional beekeepers and honey hunters that also lead to homeless clusters of bees. 


Suddenly at the end of February, as usual, bee clusters were seen everywhere. This led to the idea of exploiting this opportunity to test hive occupation from clusters. The aim was to expand the number of occupied hives as quickly as possible before the start of the flowering season. A team was established and equipped with sufficient boxes, sacks, queen cages and long sticks with swarm shaking bags. New hives were prepare

Small financial rewards were offered for reports of bee clusters. The number of clusters reported far exceeded those which could be caught!

This procedure presented unforeseen problems. The behaviour of the local bee frustrated most of our efforts. Previously our method had worked well once the queen was confined and the cluster transferred. The queen cage was fixed to one top-bar and the bees shaken into the hive. After some days the queen was released, but only if the bees had started to construct combs.


On this occasion everything was different. The large number of swarms made hive occupation very difficult. Either the bees left their confined queen exposed to death from starvation and joined any cluster nearby, or another swarm entered the hive and after some time both united swarms left the place, leaving the caged queen alone and struggling for her life. Bee clusters were found hanging outside the swarm boxes, often leaving again after some days or sometimes building combs. All kinds of conceivable variations occurred. While cluster was being placed in a new hive by the beekeeping team, a swarm arrived and entered the hive, interfering in the operations.


Although hard to believe at an apiary with established colonies, bees even left their brood and joined clusters hanging from branches. Many bees from different hives or clusters fought each other. Some hives were found after one day with thousands of dead bees, the only live bee being the queen in the queen cage. Feeding created even more conflict. Almost every colony with a feeder was robbed within hours.


We found that in hives with caged queens sometimes second queens were also present. It is feature of the local bee to have several queens for while during the reproductive season. On one occasion five queens were found in one cluster of bees! Since there was no swarming season at the time of our experiments, such hives must have been joined by another swarm. Newly occupied hives were found empty with the confined queen dead. If we released the queen the absconding rate was usually higher. The trial was improved by separating the hives and putting them into individual places some distance apart. All management steps like occupation, release of queens, or feeding were implemented at dusk giving the bees time to get used to their new environment or conditions at night. These measures led to higher rate of well-established colonies but the increased workload far outweighed these benefits. The approaching flowering season will be testing time to see if these new colonies can thrive.

The Smallholder Development Project is a European Union and Government of Zambia funded agricultural venture. It is operating in the rural area of the Copperbelt Province of Zambia. In 1993 beekeeping support programme was integrated into the Project. It focused on honey marketing, beeswax marketing and the introduction of top-bar hive beekeeping. Horst Wendorf works with the Project.

Have other readers experienced this kind of bee behaviour? Write to B&D if you have good advice to share.