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Almost... Out of Bees in Africa

by Michal Anosh, Israel

Bees for Development works hard to publish information about worthwhile and successful beekeeping development projects. The following article is different.

Naturally occurring honeybees have evolved according to the conditions prevailing in their region. This means that they have evolved ways of surviving in the presence of local pests and predators, according to the types of plants available, and the seasons and climate. Is it reasonable to expect that honeybees introduced from different region will survive more successfully?

When bee expert Mondo Basmat of Israel accepted an agricultural development assignment in the Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa, in the autumn of 1994, he was looking forward to two-year stint filled with new and rewarding experiences. But he got more than he bargained for!

In Mr Basmat's opinion, the local bees in Côte d'Ivoire were not very good at their job. He believed the bees were very aggressive and poor honey producers, and consequently proportionately fewer crops were properly pollinated.

Mr Basmat and his foreign aid colleagues decided to import number of Apis mellifera colonies from Australia. These mild-mannered bees are eager and bountiful producers and it was believed that they would readily acclimatise to the Côte d'Ivoire.

In readiness for the bees’ arrival, Basmat set up training sessions in several communities and constructed appropriate facilities to receive the bees.

From the outset, the apparently simple project was fraught with difficulties. The bees had to be shipped by air from Australia, via Kuala Lumpur, to South Africa, and then on to Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire. The first problem was that no airline wanted to ship bees as they are notorious for escaping. Furthermore, the scheduled time was Christmas ...“no room at the inn”. 

After some negotiation, a suitable bee shipper was found for February 1995, but then  project hit bump as the South African Ministry of Agriculture changed the regulations for the shipping of bees - requiring sanitary permits and 100% security.

Some bureaucratic running around achieved the appropriate paperwork - but as for the 100% security? Well, no-one told the bees!

There were to be two shipments of 240 colonies in each. For the entire journey, the bees were to be accompanied by a caretaker who would feed and water them at stop-overs.

The first shipment from Australia arrived in Johannesburg in late February and the bees were met by Basmat who cared for them over the next four days until the flight to Abidjan. While in the air, the pilot informed Basmat that the permit for the second shipment had been cancelled, as, during the scheduled stopover, some of the bees had escaped into the cargo bay in contravention of the 100% security ruling.

But this was nothing compared to the troubles to come.

When the shipment arrived in Abidjan, the boxes were unpacked and put in pallets; a few hours later they were uncorked and the bees were fed sugar water 

Upon inspection, the bees were not up to regular standard as there was an insufficient number of bees and brood and the combs were of low quality. Seven bee frames had been divided into two colonies, just before shipping. In Basmat’s opinion ten-frame minimum would have been necessary for success. Also the bees had not been given time to regroup before such an arduous journey. new queen in cage had been introduced into one colony.

It is not surprising then that the day after the bees arrived they began reacting in a strange way. Suddenly many of them simply evacuated the hive and did not return, thus debilitating an already weak colony. These bees hung around in huge ‘bee beards’. But they could not be tempted to go home. 

Maybe they were psychic. 

Over the course of the next few days, the remaining bee colonies were attacked by a series of natural predators: first parasites; then ants; then crickets; and finally white herons simply stood at the entrance swallowing up bees as they abandoned the hives.

You would probably want to leave home too if you had thousands of ants invade your privacy. In one night, ants attacked and ate 32 colonies!

But still some brave Apis mellifera remained.

Having been in Abidjan for only 10 days, the remaining bees were on the verge of becoming acclimatised when there was a drastic change in the weather. At the morning feeding the bees’ condition was stable by noon the temperature rose to 32°C, the humidity reached about 95% and by 1400 hours rain began to fall. By 1600 hours some 80 mm of rain had fallen.

At this, the bees totally abandoned their hives and formed an enormous and desperately unhappy bee beard. Inside the hives there were only honeycombs and abandoned brood.

The bees were sprayed with water and sugar to try and entice them back into their hives, and though some initially returned for few seconds, they immediately departed, taking some of the other bees with them. 

As last resort, the remaining bees were put in closed boxes until nightfall, but many of them died. Ultimately, only about 100 colonies were left of the original 240.

But there was hope.

Through much clever diplomatic work, the second shipment was finally approved and permitted, and in the meantime, Basmat’s team made special arrangements to forestall the problems they had previously encountered.

Specially isolated ant-proof stands were constructed; shaded areas were organised to keep the temperature as reasonable as possible, and all the hive openings were sealed to prevent any ‘mass exodus’ until arrival at the destination. Work groups were organised to be on stand-by for ‘scatter’ operation. Once the bees arrived, they were to be swiftly split up and conducted to their individual villages for the maximum delivery of live bees.

On 25 April 1995 the bees arrived in Johannesburg where they waited in the cold room for 54 hours until the next plane out to Abidjan. They were regularly fed and watered by Basmat and already optimism was high. There was larger percentage of live bees and the colonies seemed to be in better condition.

The bees were loaded on their next plane on 27 April for the flight to Abidjan which was to include one scheduled half hour stopover in Congo. However, in Congo, the passengers were all told to leave while the plane underwent technical repairs. Though Basmat insistently tried to enter the cargo bay to see if the bees were all right, he was ultimately detained at gun point by the security guards.

Four hours later the plane took off. 

Upon arrival in Abidjan it was clear that the cooling system in the cargo bay had been turned off during the stopover. Almost all the bees were dead. There were 4-5 cm of dead bees in the bottom of the boxes, and these were the strong, mature bees. The survivors were quickly recapped and distributed, but as soon as the boxes were opened, once again the bees and queens abandoned their new hives.

The final straw came when wild bees attacked the hive. They dragged the queen out and killed her and then robbed the hive. 

Within 10 days of their arrival in Abidjan, all 240 of the colonies in the second shipment were completely eliminated.

Thanks to the enthusiastic and dedicated efforts of Basmat’s beekeeping trainees, some 40 hives of the first shipment survived. After their shocking introduction to the Côte d'Ivoire. , they seemed to have acclimatised quite nicely and are already hard at work improving the agricultural production capacity of their villages.

This Project was jointly funded by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israel Ministry of Agriculture Centre for International Agriculture Development Co-operation and US Aid 


Apimondia recognises the important role of indigenous honeybees for biodiversity. Therefore we resolve that global transport of Apis (honeybees) into areas containing endemic Apis species be discouraged.

Apimondia Congress, Switzerland 1995 (Apimondia is the Federation of World Beekeeping Associations)

Beekeeping development should be based on local knowledge, technology and resources, and native species. History has proved that the introduction of foreign technology very often fails, whereas the introduction of foreign bees practically always leads to failure. Also, foreign bees may have unknown effects on ecological relationships. 

Conclusions and Recommendations of the Seminar on Bees and Forest in the Tropics, 1992

Governments must be urged by beekeepers to introduce and enforce legislation to prevent the importation of bees, or used beekeeping equipment, to West Africa.

The Banjul Bee Declaration 1991, First West African Bee Research Seminar

The Conference discourages the importation of bees without full assessment of its impact and requests governments to seek expert advice when formulating policy.

Fifth Apiculture in Tropical Climates Conference, Trinidad Tobago, 1992