by Nicola Bradbear & Janet Lowore, Bees for Development,
We humans endeavour to manage bees using different approaches according to our custom, education, needs and aspirations. Among many variables is the extent to which a beekeeping system draws upon natural processes and assets – as opposed to manipulated processes and external inputs. At one end of this spectrum we see honey bees being managed intensively with hundreds of closely-spaced colonies, involving all their honey being taken away, fed with refined sugar, and medicated to prevent the pathogens that are an inherent threat to any intensive system. At the other end of the spectrum, honey bees continue to live in natural cavities or in beehives we provide – for bee-conservation purposes, with little or no interference from us.
Bees for Development primarily considers beekeeping from the point of view of people living in poverty – usually in the poorest nations of the world. Intensive beekeeping is unaffordable for people in these areas because of the high capital cost. Where apicultural resources are abundant, we believe beekeeping has the potential to earn income for many people and still be good for bees and their habitat. To achieve this purpose, we advocate beekeeping systems that draw on nature. Any approach to keeping bees sustainably that uses nature, rather than cash, to get started and expand – is an excellent approach for people with limited financial means.
We call these approaches – and there are many – Nature-based Beekeeping. This means practical, feasible and sustainable ways of keeping bees that are low-cost and low-impact, and draw on natural processes and assets to yield viable and productive harvests. In this article we explain the essential features and principles of Nature- based Beekeeping.
- Elevates natural processes and natural assets, ahead of manipulated processes and external inputs.
- Is socially just, allowing people to benefit, regardless of financial capital.
- Is locally specific, not a top-down global model.
- Is economically viable.
- Respects indigenous knowledge, skills and experience.
- Provides favourable conditions for honey bees to stay healthy without medications and supplementary feed.
- Is strongly connected to the natural habitat in which the beekeeper is operating and creates an incentive for conservation.
- Addresses a wider agenda of achieving beekeeping that is sustainable for the planet.
Low barriers to entry make Nature-based Beekeeping accessible, however it is not just ‘beekeeping for poor people’ – we propose that this approach is best for everyone, and the term Nature- based Beekeeping describes best practise beekeeping currently underway around the world.
Many tropical and sub-tropical nations have a natural abundance of the resources necessary for apiculture: bees, nectar and pollen. To derive a sustainable harvest from these resources, beekeepers need beehives, and the most suitable hives can be either made by the beekeeper, or purchased at low-cost. With accessible, low-cost hives, the barrier to becoming a beekeeper is removed and anyone can participate, as explained by Joshua Ngorok, a beekeeper from Uganda:
“This way of beekeeping is so beneficial in that it is possible for everyone in the community. This approach doesn’t discriminate whether you are a child or an adult, as long as you are creative enough you can make it work for you.”Joshua Ngorok, Uganda.
All the evidence from honey-pro- ducing regions in developing nations shows that where hives are cheapest, total honey harvests are highest – because the cost barrier to participation is low, allowing thousands of people to harvest honey.
Over the years significant effort and money have been invested in many developing nations to introduce so-called ‘modern’ beekeeping. This trend began in the 1960s and still continues. Sadly, there is little evidence that this effort has made a substantial and lasting contribution to raising the welfare of ordinary farmers. Much of the problem lies with the promotion of technology, which sounds good – who doesn’t want something described as ‘modern’? However in practice this offers no advantage. In fact, contrary to helping people, the emphasis on expensive technology has made beekeeping accessible only to wealthier people or those given free equipment by a donor. And even then, the results are disappointing. Expert beekeeper Patrick Ayebazibwe in Uganda draws attention to the advantages of local-style hives:
“You can start beekeeping with zero cost, because you can pick hive-making materials from nature. Even if you can’t make your own, a local- style hive can cost just UGX5,000 (US$/€1.3) compared to UGX200,000 (US$/€52) for a so-called ‘modern’ hive. Not only that but it is easier to harvest honey from a local-style hive.”Patrick Ayebazibwe, Uganda.
For beekeeping to support people’s livelihoods it must be practical, achievable and accessible – regardless of a person’s financial status or access to donor funds. There are countless examples of conventional beehive donation projects which have failed to meet expectations. By contrast, Nature-based Beekeeping is practical, achievable and proven to work.
The Nature-based Beekeeping approach places skills and knowledge at the heart of successful beekeeping – not expen- sive hives. It requires a good understanding of the local context. Beekeepers need skills in making beehives using natural mate- rials and also knowledge about the local beekeeping season, when bees swarm, when flowers produce nectar and pollen, and when is the best time for harvesting honey. Nature-based Beekeeping is not a single methodology – practices vary from place to place – depending on the local context. Instead, it relies on indigenous knowledge. This can be quite disempow- ering for some elite groups – such as educated development workers – as it means that the expertise is out of their hands. Yet it is empowering for rural people who are the keepers of locally specific, indigenous beekeeping skills.
Nature-based Beekeepers allow bees to live more or less as they do in nature. This brings many health and economic advantages. The health advantages materialise because beekeepers do not interrupt the bees’ social immune responses, for example, a colony that is not subject to manipulations is better able to maintain a stable nest envi- ronment of optimum temperature and humidity, and the pathogen-resisting propolis envelope remains intact. The economic advantages materialise because bees that keep themselves healthy do not need expensive medications. Nature’s ‘survival of the fittest’ mechanism for good bee health and genetic fitness is the ultimate affordable solution for any beekeeper.
No, Nature Based Beekeeping is not new, except maybe for this name. It captures our approach to considering and acknowledging the hundreds of thousands of accomplished Nature-based Beekeepers across the developing world. This is a new perspective. Elevating and respecting Nature-based Beekeeping means taking a fresh look at something that is widespread. Every day we see people make their own hives using natural, free materials. Too often outsiders believe that something which has been around for a long time, must be replaced with something considered more ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’. Not so!
Taking a fresh perspective and looking at beekeeping anew, we can see that it is conventional beehive donation projects that are old-fashioned, because they rely on the out-dated idea that people need imported technology to succeed. Nature-based Beekeeping builds on local expertise and knowledge and empowers people to connect with their traditions and cultures.
Nature-based Beekeeping is what many people have been doing all along. It is good beekeeping that works and uses nature as the key ingredient. In generating income, Nature- based Beekeeping is essentially a cash transfer from nature to beekeepers’ pockets – with help from a little insect!
Across Africa the regions which harvest the largest volumes of honey are those where Nature-based Beekeeping is widely practised, for example, Tabora in Tanzania, the North- Western Province of Zambia, South West Ethiopia, and many other regions. The high volumes of honey harvested in these locations have given rise to honey and beeswax export. In Uganda, large volumes of honey are harvested in West Nile and around Kisoro, by beekeepers who own many, low-cost hives. Achini Kamilus, for example, uses hives which he makes himself, allowing him to keep 230 colonies of bees. Skills, knowledge and nature – the essential elements of Nature- based Beekeeping – allow him to earn good income from bees. Meanwhile Ethiopian beekeeper Anduamlak Asmare explains why he prefers local-style hives to frame hives:
“With frame hives the scaling-up is not promising as it is capital intensive and not preferable for catching swarms.”Anduamlak Asmare, Ethiopia.
Last year, using local-style hives placed in a natural setting, Anduamlak made in excess of US$/€1,000 from beekeeping.
Let us return to the words of Patrick Ayebazibwe who explains:
“Local-style hives have not been given a chance by promoters in Uganda, instead they all look to the other side at so-called ‘modern hives’. Yet local- style hives are affordable and easy to use, and you can even harvest honey without using protection. The difference in yield between local-style hives and frame (Langstroth) hives is minimal, in fact you can sometimes harvest more from local-style hives. And the quality of the honey is the same.”Patrick Ayebazibwe, Uganda.
The only down-side with local-style hives is that people have been led to believe that they are old-fashioned. This is the wrong way of thinking. It is time we re-evaluated what we know. Local-style hives, local skills and expert knowledge – and of course plenty of bees and flowers – are needed to make a good income from bees. Nature provides and we all have access to nature. Let us instead look at beekeeping from a new perspective and embrace Nature-based Beekeeping, an approach that places nature centre-stage.
Patrick Ayebazibwe, Achini Kamilus and Joshua Ngorok were interviewed by TUNADO (The Uganda National Apicultural Development Organisation) in 2021. Anduamlak Asmare was interviewed by Bees for Development Ethiopia in 2021.