Modern hive spurs growth in local beekeeping sector

The top bar hive like this one is being replaced with the new type that the supplier says makes it possible to recycle combs. file

Harvesting honey from hives hung by wires or in logs has long been a source of small incomes for farmers in the dry regions, but in the last two years, commercial honey harvesting is taking off across Kenya.

The modern hives are built for high yield and easy harvesting.

African Bee Keepers, supplier of the Langstroth commercial beehive, reports it sold 8,000 last year, up from 5,000 in 2008. According to managing director Ernest Simeoni, a farmer can get 30kg per harvest from the Langstroth, roughly double the normal harvest from the swinging Kenya Top Bar hive and traditional log hives.

Harvesting from log or KTB hives results in almost all the colony and the queen being displaced, but the Langstroth keeps the bees in place even as the honey is harvested, by using upper and lower box partitions.

The lower box, the brooder, houses the queen and is separated by a mesh from the upper box where worker bees make the honey. The mesh stops the queen accessing the upper box, where she could lay eggs that could be destroyed in honey harvesting.

The honey combs themselves are taken out in the upper box, which is immediately replaced with a new one, so bees can continue making honey. As each box is emptied of honey, with a centrifuge machine, the combs are left intact, to go back in with the next upper-box change-over. By recycling combs, bees make the honey faster in the next phase, as they don’t have to build new ones after every harvest.

The partitioning of the Langstroth and harvesting with a centrifuge machine ensures bees are minimally disturbed. “It’s a friendlier hive to the generally aggressive African Bee,” said Simeoni, because the colony disturbance is minimal.

For dry regions like Ukambani where forage to make nectar is only present during rains, recycling of combs also ensures bees can concentrate on making honey during the short-lived ideal conditions, rather than first collecting nectar to build combs.

Where combs are recycled and forage is plentiful, a bee-keeper can harvest 30kg of honey in four months as opposed to waiting almost a year. Forage varieties African bees prefer are Croton, eucalyptus, coffee, oranges, bananas, acacia trees even the much maligned mathenge shrub rife in arid regions. Mathenge shrub has been blamed by pastoralists for making their goats toothless after eating it.

“The honey from each of them tastes different,” says Simeoni.

Like all hives in East Africa, where bees themselves are not commercially bred, bees only get into the hive by chance. “Nature controls that,” said Mr Simeoni. But he advises that the hives be placed near forage flowers where bees gather.

After the colonies get in, the Langstroth is moved to an area clear of shadows but near a water source. “Lack of sunshine makes them lazy,” he adds. He advises that the bees’ tiny opening faces towards the sunrise as “the sun wakes them up in the morning”.

The hives are mounted on stands raised a metre from the ground and need to be tidy and clean. Termites and honey badgers are the main problems for bees and hives. Termites can be kept out by keeping the grass low and the badgers by securing the area.

Low-cost venture

For general safety, Mr Simeoni advises the hives be kept 300 metres from where people are living. African Bee Keepers sells each hive at Sh4,100 and a bees’ suit, which provides protection from stings when harvesting, for Sh4,800. The centrifuge extraction kit is more expensive; it costs around Sh45,000.

In addition to selling the Langstroth hive, the company trains farmers on managing hives, as well acting as a buyer of wax and honey. It buys a kilogramme of honey at Sh130 and bees wax to make the honeycomb foundation sheet for new hives at Sh300 per kg. Each hive lasts eight years.

“Bee keeping is a low cost venture with high returns,” said Mr Simeoni, who points out that farmers can also process and pack their own honey in bottles that cost Sh12 with a label that costs Sh3. After packing, a bee keeper can sell half a kilogramme of honey at Sh130 or more to clients.

African Bee Keepers works with farmers in regions like Mwingi, Kibwezi, Sagana, Ruiru, Narok and Maasai Land.

-African Laughter

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