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Beekeeping helps to create sustainable livelihoods

Beekeeping does not attract much attention. It is easy to visit villages and not "see" beekeeping, unless actively looking for it. Beekeeping, however, is crucially important for agricultural well-being; it represents and symbolizes the natural biological interdependence that comes from insects, pollination and production of seed. Useful small-scale efforts to encourage beekeeping interventions can be found throughout the world, helping people to strengthen livelihoods and ensuring maintenance of habitat and biodiversity.

Strengthening livelihoods means helping people to become less vulnerable to poverty. This is achieved by helping them to gain greater access to a range of assets, and supporting their capacity to build these assets into successful livelihood activities. This booklet shows the useful role that beekeeping can play in creating sustainable livelihoods.

People who have limited cash or financial savings often have other assets or strengths - as opposed to needs - that can be mobilized. Chambers and Conway (1992) developed what is now the accepted definition of a livelihood: "Alivelihood comprises the capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base."

Beekeeping assets

Individual livelihoods depend on access to many types of assets which fall into five categories: natural, human, physical, social and financial. To understand this, think about your own livelihood and all the diverse assets you depend upon: your skills, access to transport, equipment, telecommunications and the social networks you have been born into or have created yourself. No individual category of capital assets, such as finance, is sufficient on its own to create a livelihood.

Beekeeping is a useful means of strengthening livelihoods because it uses and creates a range of assets. Successful beekeeping draws upon all categories of capital assets, although financial capital is not essential for getting started in productive beekeeping.

Types of capital assets needed for beekeeping


bees, a place to keep them, water, sunshine, biodiversity and environmental resources;


skills, knowledge, good health and strength, and marketing expertise;


tools, equipment, transport, roads, clean water, energy and buildings;


help from families, friends and networks, membership of groups and access to a wider society, market information and research findings;


cash, savings and access to credit or grants.

Natural capital assets

Beekeeping livelihoods are built upon natural resource stocks: bees, flowering plants and water. Bees collect gums and resins from plants and use plants and trees as habitat for nesting. Bees are a natural resource, and freely available in the wild. Where bees have not been poisoned, damaged or harmed, they will collect wherever they are able, provided the natural conditions include available flowering plants. Wild or cultivated areas, wasteland and even areas where there may be land mines all have value for beekeeping. Beekeeping is possible in arid areas and places where crops or other enterprises have failed; the roots of nectar-bearing trees may still be able to reach the water table far below the surface. This makes beekeeping feasible in marginal conditions, which is important for people who need to restore their livelihoods or create new ones.

Beekeeping fits in well alongside many other livelihood endeavours because it uses the same natural resources as, for example, forestry, agriculture and conservation activities. Beekeeping provides an excellent bonus in addition to other crops rather than instead of them, because only bees are capable of harvesting nectar and pollen. There is no competition with other insects or animals for these resources that otherwise would be inaccessible to people. Beekeeping ensures the continuation of natural assets through pollination of wild and cultivated plants. Flowering plants and bees are interdependent: one cannot exist without the other. As bees visit flowers, they collect food and their pollination activities ensure future generations of food plants, available for future generations of bees and for people too. It is a perfect self-sustaining activity. Pollination is difficult to quantify, but if it could be measured it would be the most economically significant value of beekeeping.

FIGURE 1 A mother and child in Nepal: just one hive of bees makes a significant contribution to the resources of the household.

By definition, a livelihood should enhance capabilities "while not undermining the natural resource base" (Chambers and Conway, 1992). Beekeeping goes beyond this, because it actually helps to sustain the natural resource base. Throughout the world, beekeeping has traditionally been part of village agriculture. Now, as farming practices change, it is essential to ensure that beekeeping is retained and encouraged in order to provide continued populations of pollinating insects.

Human assets

Many societies have considerable traditional knowledge and skills concerning bees, honey and related products. The products of beekeeping are often used by women: the important tej (honey wine) industry in Ethiopia, for example, is run by women. Elsewhere in Africa, women brew and sell honey beer. These are the types of human assets or skills needed to create livelihoods within a society. Beekeeping projects have sometimes ignored existing knowledge or implied that it was wrong or out of date, which is worse. The best beekeeping projects recognize existing skills and build on them for greater income generation and to ensure sustainability.

FIGURE 2 Many African women add to their livelihoods by brewing and selling honey beer. Ethiopian women make and sell tej (honey wine) and non-alcoholic drinks based on honey.

Physical assets

Successful beekeeping enterprises require production equipment and infrastructure such as transport, water, energy, roads, communication systems and buildings. There are many ways to manage bees and obtain crops of honey, beeswax or other products. In sustainable beekeeping projects, all equipment must be made and mended locally which, in turn, contributes to the livelihoods of other local people. Beekeeping can add to the livelihoods of many different sectors within a society including village and urban traders, carpenters who make hives and stands, tailors who make veils, clothing and gloves and those who make and sell tools and containers.

Social assets

Social resources such as networks and producer and marketing associations have great significance for beekeeping development. Local associations provide the means for beekeepers to advance their craft, lobby for the protection of bees, organize collective processing for honey and wax, and gain access to markets. Access to networks at a wider level through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Apimondia and Bees for Development helps beekeepers to make national and international contacts, find sources of training, markets and new research results, and improve their understanding of the industry.

Financial assets

Although significant financial assets are not essential to initiate beekeeping activities at subsistence level, they are essential for development of beekeeping enterprises. Successful marketing depends on adequate supplies of containers for processing and packaging. Credit is necessary for beekeeping associations to run collection centres and for traders to buy honey and beeswax.

A good beekeeping project will utilize available assets; it will not depend on imported resources or equipment, such as the beeswax foundation used in frame hives (see Figure 26). There are situations all over the world where beekeeping can be especially valuable because it remains an activity that is possible for people living in the most difficult circumstances, perhaps isolated by war or sanctions. This is because bees are almost always available in the wild and equipment can be made from whatever materials are at hand.

Beekeeping outcomes

Beekeeping produces a number of quite different outcomes.

· Pollination of flowering plants, both wild and cultivated, is vital for continued life on earth. However, this essential process is difficult to quantify.

· People everywhere like honey, the best-known beekeeping product. Honey is a traditional medicine or food in most societies. Whether sold fresh at village level or in sophisticated packaging, honey generates income and can create livelihoods for several sectors within a society.

· Beeswax is a valuable product of beekeeping, and much of the world's supply comes from developing countries.

· Beekeeping products such as pollen, propolis and royal jelly can be harvested and marketed, although special techniques and equipment are needed for some of these products.

· Beekeepers and other community members can create assets by using honey, beeswax and other products to make secondary products such as candles, skin ointments and beer. Secondary product brings a far better return for the producer than selling the raw commodity. This work strengthens people's livelihoods.

· Products of beekeeping are used for apitherapy in many societies.

· Honey, beeswax and products made from them, such as candles, wine and food items, have cultural value in many societies and may be used in rituals for births, marriages, funerals and religious celebrations.

· Beekeepers are generally respected for their craft. Bees and beekeeping have a wholesome reputation. Images of bees are used as symbols of hard work and industry, often by banks and financial institutions.

FIGURE 3 A beekeeper in the Amazon. Honey is a useful source of income for people living in or near tropical forests.

These outcomes are real and they strengthen people's livelihoods, even though some of them cannot be fully quantified. Beekeeping helps people to become less vulnerable, strengthens their ability to plan for the future and reduces the danger that they will slip into poverty in a time of crisis, for example, if a family member becomes ill or crops fail.

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