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Local style beekeeping: Sierra Leone

MAKING LOCAL BEEKEEPING SUSTAINABLE IN SIERRA LEONE

Kwame Aidoo, Saltpond Honey Centre, PO Box 169, Saltpond, Ghana

In this article Dr Aidoo describes the traditional practice and how it is now improved to ensure that bees are not harmed, and larger volumes of top quality honey and beeswax are harvested.

Koinadugu is the largest district in Sierra Leone, sharing a border with Guinea to the North. The major occupation is agriculture, with farmers involved in crop and animal production. Rice is the main staple crop and is grown in low lying swamps, as well as on high ground during the rainy season. Other cultivated crops include Brassica, cassava, okra, peppers and sweet potatoes. The rainy season is May until October while the rest of the year is a long, dry season, characterised by hot daytime temperatures with dry Hamattan winds.

Local style beekeeping

Many farmers use a local style of beekeeping that has been passed between generations. Honey from these beekeepers becomes available in the weekly markets during April and May. This beekeeping begins with learning the skills for weaving cylindrical baskets from raffia canes. These baskets are developed into bee hives by coating them with a thick layer of either cow dung or clay and cow dung mix. After the basket dries in the sun for three days, it is wrapped with a thick layer of dry grass and bound tightly with raffia rope. Two discs are woven with the pith of the raffia cane and these are used to close up each end of the cylindrical basket. Two holes made in the disc serve as entrances for the bee colony that is hoped will settle inside.

Hive placement

The basket hive is placed high in the branches of a tall tree and is fastened with raffia rope to hold it securely. One tree may hold up to five hives, depending on the spread of the canopy. The beekeepers set up their hives during January and February to catch the swarms of bees that abound in the forests at that time of the year. In March and April, two to three months after the hives have been colonised, the farmers get ready for honey harvest, or as they refer to it ‘pulling honey’.

The battle of ‘pulling honey’

Tree climbing is a skill that a good beekeeper must learn for hive placement and for honey harvest. At dusk the harvesting team leaves the village and moves into the dark forest with honey harvesting tools and containers. The operation begins with lighting a torch of fire made with dry palm fronds or grass. One member of the gang climbs the tree armed with a cutlass and a long, strong rope. He goes up into the canopy and ties the rope around the hive. He then cuts loose the raffia ties that secured the hive to the tree and using the rope and a tree branch as a pulley, lowers the hive slowly to the ground. The heavy hive lands on the forest floor and the bees are angry. As quickly as possible, the grass cover of the hive is cut open to expose the inner basket cylinder. This is slashed length-wise to expose all the combs.

All honeycombs are removed and put into containers and some brood combs are taken to be eaten. During this operation many of the worker bees are burnt with the torch and the entire nest is destroyed. The fate of the few bees that are not killed is anybody’s guess. The team moves on to harvest the next hive in the same manner.

Basket hive coated with cow dung
The battle of ‘pulling honey’
ALL PHOTOS © KWAME AIDOO

The role of women

Women are forbidden to climb trees and therefore cannot ‘pull honey’, however they are responsible for the important roles of processing and marketing. The man comes home deep in the night with a load of honeycombs and some brood combs to be enjoyed by all, including the neighbours. The woman’s work begins with preparing a hot bath for the man, and she checks his body to remove the remnants of numerous stings. She must extract the honey before daybreak, otherwise bees will invade the house next morning to take back their stolen treasure. The combs are put into a big cooking pot and placed on a fire to melt. The woman stirs up the combs until all have melted, the molten mixture of honey and wax is taken off the fire and poured into broad mouthed containers that are tightly covered and allowed to cool. After cleaning her kitchen of all traces of honey and wax, she goes to bed - only to be woken at dawn by the call to all faithful to worship. The next day the melted combs have formed solid beeswax on top of the honey. This is removed and put aside (it is not regarded as being of commercial importance). The cooked honey is packed into 7 kg plastic containers and sent to the market place where buyers from neighbouring Guinea buy them at cheap prices. The honey merchants are content with the honey produced in the district and buy at the giveaway price of SLL6,000 (US$1.40; €1.02) per 7 kg container. The sale of honey in the market closes the beekeeping season for the year.

Pastor John Kumara is acclaimed as the leading beekeeper in Koinadugu. He is the Chairman of the Musaia Beekeeping Group which has 25 members. This group has about 500 basket hives with an average yield of 14 kg of honey. About one tonne of honey is sent for sale in Musaia.

Wrapping basket hives with Kola leaves
Pastor John Kamara shows the improved Kamara basket hive

A new era

The Government of Sierra Leone Ministry of Agriculture, with support from the Italian Government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), launched Operation Feed the Nation under the Food Security for Commercialisation of Agriculture project. Honey was identified as one of the products that has potential to become an income earner for farmers, and in July 2009 FAO assessed the beekeeping potential of Koinadugu, and various interventions were planned for improvement. Beekeepers in the district were put into 44 groups, each with a membership of 25. These were prepared to receive interventions recommended by the FAO consultant. This marked the beginning of a new era of quality honey production.

In February 2010 a workshop was organised to discuss alternatives to negative practices. There were no drastic changes to the traditional system, and beekeeping in the district has been greatly improved through the modifications:

Cow dung in hive construction: Wrapping the basket with Kola leaves or banana leaves is a good substitute for cow dung.

New Kamara basket hive: The redesigned hive has a brood chamber which slots into a second honey section and allows harvesting without destruction of the colony.

Placement of hives: Placing hives in trees stops bush fires from destroying colonies. A fire belt created around an apiary of 10-20 hives could offer protection.

Beekeeping calendar: A working guide for beekeepers (image below). Two honey harvests are possible in the dry season if colonies are not killed during harvesting.

Honey business centre: This will be established in Musaia to handle production from all groups in the district and focus on marketing top quality honey and other bee products.

‘Koina Forest Honey’ is now much sought after in Sierra Leone. Before the project, in Freetown, a 1 kg bottle of Koina Forest Honey sold at SLL5,000 (US$1.17; €0.85). Today, a 350 g jar sells for SLL14,000 (US$3.27; €2.37). Pastor Kamara and his group sell their well packaged honey directly to ten supermarkets and participate in a weekly food fair in Freetown.

Bafa (thatch hutch) used as a bee house for effective colony managemen
tBeekeeping calendar being developed for Koinadugu District

Dr Aidoo is BfD’s Correspondent in Ghana. The full article is on our website.