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Diversity and Innovation: Bees and Beekeeping in Africa

Berthold Schrimpf[16] and Andrew D. Kidd[17]

The use of bees, harvesting their honey and beeswax, is widespread in Africa and is of great economic importance in some regions, helping to sustain the livelihoods of a wide range of rural people. However, this has often been overlooked in rural development programmes. Bees provide products that give many livestock keepers and other rural dwellers added income, and honey is also used in traditional medicine. These are the more obvious benefits derived from beekeeping, but the main impact of bees on the livelihoods of the local population results from the fact that they increase fruit-tree and crop harvests through pollination. In addition, beekeeping also provides incentives for sound environmental stewardship. Thus beekeeping benefits individual beekeepers, those who enjoy their products and many farmers who gain better yields because their farms are located close to bee colonies.

The common African bee is the same species as the European bee (Apis mellifera), but taxonomists have identified more than ten subspecies. Further taxonomic work will probably identify further subspecies.

There is a great diversity in behaviour among African bees. It is not clear to what extent bee behaviour correlates with bee taxonomy. What is clear, however, is that the behavioural diversity of bees represents a great challenge to bee management throughout the continent.

The management intensity applied to bees can range from searching out wild bee colonies and destroying nests to harvest honey and wax, via traditional ownership over such nests in, for example, trees or other places, to the construction of hives and special catcher boxes of various types in private ownership. Even when humans interact closely with bee colonies, providing hives and harvesting products, the bees remain largely undomesticated and "wild" in their behaviour. The diversity of hives and the diversity and dynamics of management practices suggests a great degree of adaptation to differences in bee behaviour and environment. It also demonstrates a wealth of indigenous knowledge and indicates a high degree of innovation. This is rarely appreciated by development workers, despite the fact that beekeeping forms an important livelihood asset. This means that many rural people have not been able to seize the opportunity to benefit from a significant global demand for bee products. Furthermore, when development activities have addressed beekeeping, they have tended towards production-oriented, technically based concepts of "modern" beekeeping, which have had little success. Such approaches often fail because they rely on transferring (modified) exogenous technology rather than on adapted indigenous technologies. They also fail because they do not link supply with demand.

[16] Fürstenhagen, Germany (E-mail:
[17] Hohenheim University, Stuttgart, Germany and PACTeam, Ellington, UK (E-mail:

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