Chapter 1 Introduction

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Honey, the natural food of the honeybee, has many times been described as man's sweetest food. The credit must never go to man but to the honeybee, which may be called "the golden insect". The honeybee is well distributed over the globe except in the severe cold of the polar regions. Africa is blessed with numerous types of wild honeybee. They exist everywhere on the continent where man lives, from the equatorial evergreen rain-forest to the desert oasis, although they are more numerous in the drier savannah than in the wetter forest areas. They all produce honey, the nutritious natural food good for both man and animals.

Honey is collected from tree branches, hollows and crevices in several regions of the continent. Keeping bees in beehives as practiced in Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania is not well known in other parts of Africa. Even in these countries, traditional beekeeping does not make use of the correct equipment and modern techniques. Honey is harvested by the use of fire or live torches which burn the insects to death. In Vest Africa, the method of honey harvesting is barbaric. The insect collects nectar from flowers and then processes it in the hive and packs it in comb cells. Han waits patiently until the warmest time of the year, when the insect has the largest quantity of the sweet honey in stock, then takes his machete, axe and mallet, hacks down the tree where the hive is built and sets fire to most of the bees to kill them or weaken them before the combs are removed. He takes away all the combs. Some tribes eat both honey and brood alike. Often the queen bee, essential to the colony, is killed in the process, and that, of course, dooms the colony. A colony of bees treated this way is overwhelmed, and the only thing left for the few still alive to do is to seek a new abode elsewhere. This kind of honey hunting is like the farmer who kills his cow in order to milk it.

The honey-tapper sometimes melts down both honey and beeswax into a container. The next morning the honey has cooled down, and the wax has hardened on top of it. The wax is then removed and thrown away. Thus the poor man loses additional income and his government also loses foreign exchange. This practice is going on today.

Another sad side of this ignorance is that, after harvesting the honeycombs (something which is usually done at night), the honey-tapper throws away his live torch. The swift-blowing dry harmattan wind fans the flame, and this results in a huge wild veldt fire which can consume several square kilometres, destroying life and property and leaving the soil bare for the winds to turn into a desert. The honey-hunter is doing all this, but strangely enough, no government has raised a finger against him, and no Vest African government has initiated any apicultural programme to educate him, even though the land is ideally rich in honey and beeswax.

The history of honey-hunting involving the live torch dates back several thousand years. Dr. Eva Crane's Book of Honey (1980) contains the picture of a rock painting, near the Toghwana Dam, Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe, of a honey-hunter using fire. 20th-century man is too mature to do the same. The practice must be shunned, discouraged, regarded as out-of-date and stopped. Modern man must approach beekeeping scientifically, using new methods of hunting or harvesting honey described in this manual.

Why should Africa keep bees?

Honey is money. Honey is delicious and nutritious. How can man obtain honey to combat malnutrition? The answer is in beekeeping. By keeping bees, he can obtain large quantities of honey and raw beeswax for home consumption and for export. Other benefits of beekeeping are as follows:

1. Tropical apiculture is cheap. It does not involve mass feeding of bees, because the insects can provide their own food all year round, and there is no over-wintering bee management.

2. All the necessary inputs required for beekeeping are available locally. Some may be wasted if bees are not kept, e.g. pollen and nectar from flowering plants.

3. Individuals and private organizations such as churches, women's groups, youth associations and cooperative societies can initiate it with only limited funds.

4. Beekeeping is self-reliant. It does not depend on importation of foreign equipment or inputs.

5. In many rural localities, the technology is available.

6. It improves the ecology. It helps plant reproduction. Bees do not over-graze as other animals do.

7. The honeybee produces honey, beeswax and propolis. These are non-perishable commodities that can be marketed locally or abroad.

8. The honeybee provides pollination service. This is an indispensable activity in the food production process.

9. The honeybee is the only insect that can be transported from crop to crop.

10. Honey and beeswax can be produced in semi-arid areas that are unsuitable for any other agricultural use.

11. The beekeeper does not need to own land in order to keep bees.

Bee products and their uses

Six bee products are known. These are honey, beeswax, propolis, pollen, royal jelly or "bee milk", and bee venom.

a) Honey is the sweet, viscous Juice usually collected in the largest quantities from the beehive. It is found in cells of the honeybee comb. Matured (ripe) honey is usually found in sealed combs and can be kept indefinitely; unsealed honey is not matured and therefore ferments shortly after it is harvested.

b) Beeswax is a product of the honeybee. It is produced from the bee's own body during the warm period of the day. The bee uses wax to build the comb cells in which its brood are reared, and also the cells in which honey and pollen are stored. The bee consumes between 8 and 15 kg of honey to produce one kg of beeswax. The wax is removed or collected by heating (see Chapter 6). In several countries, beeswax collection is unknown because the people do not know that the local beeswax is good for use. Instead, craftsmen and industrialists import beeswax from Europe. In Vest Africa, honey-tappers throw away the wax. At the same time, big manufacturing firms pressure the government to collect foreign exchange to import the wax, mostly from the United Kingdom and Prance.

Beeswax is rendered from the bee combs after the honey has been removed. In Europe, America and Australia, beeswax extraction has a minor place because only a few combs are harvested. Therefore these continents depend on tropical countries for their raw beeswax.

Beeswax has over 120 industrial uses. It has a ready market both at home and abroad. In 1978, one kilogramme of bleached beeswax cost 11.00 in Britain. Suppliers in Europe buy processed or bleached beeswax from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, and other African countries purchase the same wax from Europe! One African firm spent US$ 400 000 in 1979 alone to purchase beeswax, transportation costs not included.

c) Propolis is a resinous material collected by bees from leaves and buds of certain trees. It is greenish-black in colour and gummy in consistency. The bees use propolis to fill cracks in their hive, to seal the entrance hole when it is too large, to make the hive watertight, to glue the top bars to the hive body, to strengthen the thin borders of their comb and as an embalming material to cover any dead hive intruder which they cannot remove from the hive.

This hive product has several pharmacological properties; for instance, it is used in preparations to treat some skin diseases, and research on other uses is going forward. It is also marketable abroad.

d) Pollen, the male reproductive agent of flowering plants, is collected by bees and stored in comb cells. It is fed to the brood in the larval stage. Pollen is collected from beehives by the use of pollen traps. These remove the pollen pellets from the corbicula (pollen baskets) on the hind legs of the foraging bee.

Beekeepers can collect pollen from hives and save it to feed to the bees at times when no plants producing pollen are in flower for the bees to collect and eat directly. In the developed countries, pollen is also used in some expensive dietary supplements, since it is believed to have valuable medicinal properties.

e) Royal jelly, or "bee milk", is used by the bees to feed the queen bee and the young larvae less than three days old. It is secreted from the glands of the 5- to 15-day-old worker bee. Studies show royal jelly to be a good source of Vitamin B. Like pollen, it is thought to have medicinal value and is therefore used in certain expensive preparations. Human consumption in China alone is 100 tonnes annually. China makes royal Jelly chocolate candy and wine, as well as lotions and tonics for therapeutic use.

f) Bee venom is used by the bees as a defensive weapon to protect their property. Nature provides the honeybee with this venom. Otherwise, insects, some birds and reptiles would not allow them to enjoy the fruit of their labour. The African bee is aggressive and stings painfully, and this serves it well, for otherwise human beings, too, the worst enemies of the insect, would rob them easily.

The venom has two main medical uses: as a desensitizer for those who are allergic to bee stings, and in the treatment of arthritis. It is applied directly or by inject ion.


The most important service the honeybee renders to mankind is pollination of fruit crops. "The fact that bees are important in the pollination of many species of plants is not new, but the fact that honeybees are becoming indispensable in our agricultural economy may be considered as relatively new. Statements frequently have been made that the value of the bees in pollination exceeds by ten to twenty times their value in the production of honey and beeswax." (Hambleton, 1954.)

In the USA, some beekeepers move their hives over 2 500 kilometres away and make considerable charges for pollination service. This shows what farmers from other parts of the world do to ensure the setting of their fruit crops. In tropical Africa, the few wild bees left for pollination are being burnt to death every day. Their natural abodes in trees are being destroyed. In most countries, the people are looking on unconcerned, with no programme to replace the trees and rehabilitate the bees. We need the honeybees. Every farmer should employ honeybees just as labourers are employed on the farm. Every farmer should make sure that he has enough bees on his farm for adequate pollination, and this can best be done through getting involved in beekeeping. By doing so, the farmer will harvest honey and wax in addition to enjoying better crop yields.

Where to keep bees?

The ideal vegetation for commercial honey and beeswax production is on savannah (irrigated) and semi-arid lands. Such areas have very low annual rainfall, between 125 and 1 250 mm. The tropical deciduous forest, with an annual rainfall between 1 275 mm and 1 875 mm, can also support considerable bee activity. It is this vegetation that produces such cash crops as coffee, cola, palm oil and coconut, all of which require the honeybee's pollinating service.

The vegetation not suitable for honey production is the equatorial evergreen rain forest with an annual rainfall between 2 000 mm and 10 000 mm.

Is the African bee worth keeping?

The first beekeeping project in Ghana was initiated by the government in the 1960s. Exotic bees were imported for breeding, in an attempt to replace the aggressive tropical African bee with the more gentle Caucasian and Italian strains. However, the bees (which had been purchased with scarce foreign exchange) died off quickly, the project failed, and beekeeping was shelved in Ghana for another 20 years.

In recent years, however, a number of private enthusiasts have begun working with the tropical honeybee (Apis mellifera adansonii), better adapted to African ecological conditions. Although this local honeybee does tend to be aggressive, it has the considerable advantage of producing several honey crops a year. It gathers its own food all the time. There is little or no need to feed it. This contrasts with temperate-zone bees which only work between six and nine months a year. Colonies are then over-wintered (kept out of the cold) and are fed with sugar or corn syrup, making management expensive and tedious.

All bees in the world are feared, because all of them sting painfully. There seems to be no difference between the stings of the European and African strains. But while the African bee is more energetic and quick-tempered than most others, it is not as dangerous as some people think. It is gentler than the "Africanized" bee from South America which is threatening American beekeepers.

Differences between the African bee and the European bee (A. mellifera) of interest to beekeepers include the following:

a) The European bee is slightly larger than the tropical honeybee, and therefore hive dimensions for A. m. adansonii are somewhat smaller.

b) The tropical African honeybee colony produces more drones than the European bee colony. Drone cells are usually superimposed on worker cells. They are found side by side and at the base of one or more combs on opposite sides.

c) The European bee can be managed easily. Most African bees are unmanageable. Even the manageable few are not very reliable in this respect and may desert the hive when greatly disturbed.

d) The African bee migrates if meteorological conditions are unfavourable. It absconds when disturbed, a phenomenon which exists to a much lesser extent among European bees.

e) The African bee is aggressive during the hot hours of the day. The warmer the period, the more aggressive it is. In contrast, the European bee ignores the beekeeper during the warm period of the day but stings him when the temperature falls.

f) Very little smoke is required to cool down the Italian or the Carnolian, but the tropical bee needs copious quantities of smoke repeated at short intervals.

g) Several African bees take to the air immediately when their comb is removed from the hive. The colony sometimes leaves the hive empty and flies in all directions, hunting for the culprit.

h) African bees hate noise. Beekeepers are advised not to talk or make noise when they are visiting them during the daytime. In contrast, the Californian beekeeper, working with European bees, drives his truck to the apiary and uses motorized mowers to cut weeds. The bees never take any notice of the great noise unless the hive is hit by the blade. They seem to be deaf or, at least, their sense of hearing is not very acute.

i) The alarm pheromone of the tropical honeybee (see p. 34) seems to be more powerful than that of the European bee. When a victim is stung, he is anointed with the pheromone around the spot. If he then refuses to move away, more bees will follow and sting him on the same spot. Within a short period, he will be covered with angry bees.

j) The European bee will not punish the beekeeper who kills a bee near the hive, but dozens of the African bee will chase and sting the culprit, especially when one of them is crushed near the hive.

k) The African bee may chase its victim for more than 400 m. The European bee does so for not more than 50 m.

Honey production

Many people believe that the European bee produces more honey than the tropical honeybee. This point is very controversial. Perhaps such statements are made without taking into consideration the following factors:

a) The European bee is fed with sugar and corn syrup. If this is subtracted from the honey yield, it will be found that the wild, unfed tropical bee is also a good honey producer.

b) There are more flowering plants in the temperate climates than in tropical vegetation zones.

c) Bees near the Equator work for 13 hours a day during the honey-flow season. In the rich honey areas of the temperate zone, where the summer days are longer, the honeybee works for more than 18 hours.

d) The introduction of modern equipment (e.g. the Langstroth hive and the centrifugal honey extractor) in the tropics will make a considerable change. Currently, beekeepers in most African countries crush their honeycombs for honey and wax. The honeybee has to produce new combs for every new crop, and comb-building wastes 8-15 kg of honey for every kg of wax made.

A good colony of bees can produce over 100 kg of honey per year in Africa. At Yendi in Ghana, two Peace Corps volunteers working for the Technology Consultancy Centre harvested 112 kg of honey in 1983 from one wild colony. Some poor colonies may produce almost nothing, but this happens all over the world, Just as with any agricultural crop.

Who should keep bees?

In several places in East Africa, beekeeping is associated with witchcraft. Young men therefore do not keep bees, and beekeeping is considered to be the occupation of the old people in the society. In Botswana, on the contrary, Mr. Bernhard Clauss and Miss Phokedi are working bees with school children. In Ghana, housewives are very active. The Ghana Bee News reported that one woman drove her bees for several miles unprotected, indicating that beekeeping is possible for everyone, except those with bee allergy problems.

Beekeepers should form associations and organize themselves into cooperative societies at the local, and regional and national levels. They should explore possibilities for support to enable them to set up training and processing centres, acquire suitable equipment, promote the well-being of the industry and find markets for bee products. On the other hand, the efforts of enthusiastic beekeepers should be supported by governments and development agencies, which should provide funding for training, research and development programmes, and introduce apicultural studies in school and university curricula.

At a time when sugar is scarce, the honeybee is prepared to provide abundant, sweet, nutritious honey for cooking and baking, and to feed the infant as well as the invalid. The honeybee is waiting to pollinate fruit crops for man without any obligation.

Beekeeping can thus reward the African beekeeper and his continent.

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