Bees and Beeswax

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In Malawi the honey from three types of bees is widely recognized, even though the honey of the stingless bee is infrequently gathered, and then only by means of opportunistic honey-hunting.

The first of these is the small mining bee mpasi (family Halictidae), which lives in small colonies, usually in the ground, and often in a bank. Several species may be involved - but the group has been little studied in Malawi, although over seventy species have been described from Africa. The honey of the mpasi is well liked. Little is known of this family of bees, and there appears to be no record in the literature of people gathering its honey (cf. Crane 1999), and I am reliant on Sweeney regarding its identification (1970: 217).

The second is the so-called mopane bee, nsikisa (Trigona bottegoi), tiny stingless bees that construct their nests in crevices in walls or rocks, in hollow trees, or in termite mounds. There is usually a slender tube at the entrance of the nest. Again, several species of the sub-family Meliponidae are probably involved. Both the honey and the brood of these bees are eaten by Malawians; the honey is very sweet, well liked, and usually described as tongole. The honey of stingless bees is eaten throughout Africa, and in many other parts of the world (Crane 1999: 15-16). But neither species of the stingless bees is well known to many Malawians, as opposed to being simply recognized. The honey of these bees often has toxic qualities, and may cause illness; but as with the edible caterpillars, the toxins may derive from the trees on which the bees feed, rather than from the honey itself (Crane 1999: 61).

It is the third species of social bee that is familiar to Malawians, the African honey-bee njuchi (Apis mellifera) - which is ubiquitous throughout the country. The Malawi honey-bee belongs to the sub-species Apis mellifera scutellata, which is the common savannah bee of east and southern Africa, and like many members of the genus (but not all), it nests in cavities and has multiple comb nests. On Nyika plateau, above 1,500 m, the mountain bee of east Africa, Apis mellifera monticola, is found. It is larger and darker than the common honey-bee.

The African honey-bee has a reputation for aggressiveness, and for its readiness to defend its colonies, often fiercely attacking people without any provocation. When exploring a dry river-bed in Mwabvi game reserve, looking for bushpig and hyrax, accompanied by a Malawian game guard, I was viciously attacked by the bees, and stung about ten times. I was quite unaware of their nest, and spent the night sweating, intensely itching and experiencing a kind of out-of body feeling ... which lasted about six hours. Several deaths of young children stung by a swarm of bees have been recorded from Malawi, and the newspapers regularly report bees attacking mourners at a funeral - which usually take place in a wooded graveyard (manda) - so that the ceremony has had to be abandoned. One report described how the bees had 'launched' their attack from a hive in a nearby tree, and many people 'ran for their lives including the flower carrying women'. The bees, it noted, landed on the coffin, putting an end to the whole of the proceedings (Daily Times 28 August, 1998).

Yet I have seen Malawians taking honey from nests in hollow trees or houses, wearing no protective clothing and seemingly untroubled by the bees, as well as bee-keeping handbooks that carry photographs of young African boys opening, and helping themselves to the honey from, top-bar hives, dressed in ordinary clothes and without any protection at all (Clauss 1982). Not understanding and puzzled by this seeming contradiction, I asked an experienced bee-keeper at Zoa Biton Gulumba, to explain to me the real nature of African bees. His response was quite simple. Bees are not usually angry or hostile; they are normally gentle creatures, and only become aggressive when under stress. If he receives reports, he told me, that his bees are attacking women working in the gardens that are close to his hives he simply ascertains what is troubling the bees. Are they being attacked by ants (nyerere), or being unduly disturbed, or is the hive short of food or water? He then, he suggested to me, did what he could to rectify the situation. Moreover, he stressed to me that the smoking of bees was not to subdue them, or in any way injure them, but rather to make them docile, and any kind of material that produces acrid smoke, such as paraffin, only serves to make the bees angry (-kwiya, -bvuta), and thus more likely to attack the intruder. He always used dried cow dung, and swore by it. In east Africa the dried powder from the puffball fungus (Lycoperdon sp.) is used to 'stupefy' the bees (Bodenheimer 1951: 175). The smoking of bees must therefore be done gently and with care, and with materials that have an appropriate aroma. Apparently, the bees suspect bushfire, and so will fill themselves with honey. They then become slow and docile and less likely to sting (Clauss 1982: 31). Killing bees also makes other members of the hive agitated and angry, and liable to attack anything that moves.

In his encyclopaedic study on British Central Africa the early administrator Harry Johnston recorded that honey-bees were found throughout Malawi in all forested areas, and made delicious honey and excellent wax. He noted two things: one was the importance of wax as an article of export; the other was that local bees were 'very ill-tempered', that he had been attacked by a swarm of bees while travelling in the upper Shire valley, and that bees were a great nuisance in the houses in Zomba, then the capital of the protectorate (1897: 374). We may briefly discuss both these issues.

Throughout the colonial period exports of beeswax from Malawi (then Nyasaland) were an important item of trade. In 1891 the first beeswax was exported from the country, and in 1895, 2.5 tons (valued at £174) was exported. Along with Strophanthus, beeswax reached an export peak in 1906, with an export of 58 tons (£6,000) of beeswax. Although beeswax continued to be exported in later years, virtually without a break, its relative importance declined, and along with such indigenous products as ivory and Strophanthus, as an export commodity beeswax gave way to such export crops as tobacco, tea and cotton (C. A. Baker 1962: 18). As beeswax had a relatively high market value throughout the colonial period, the government attempted to encourage the collection of wax by local people. Bee-keeping seemed to be fairly widespread, with cylindrical hives made from the bark of a tree, but the method of collecting the honey, one administrator remarked, tended to be rather extravagant, for often the majority of the bees in the hive were killed by the use of fire. The response to government requests was varied, but in 1933 beeswax exported from Nyasaland had the value of £1,348. In the ten-year period prior to the Second World War the value of beeswax exported annually varied from £455 to £1,492, averaging £940 (MNA/NN/1/3/1, M2/24/15). This indicates that traditional bee-keeping was commonly practised throughout the colonial period. It is worth noting that yields from traditional bee-keeping range from 7-10 kg of honey and about 1 kg of wax per hive, with a maximum of as much as 39 kg of honey (Peham 1996).

The other issue relating to bees that concerned the colonial administration was the continual invasion of bees into the houses and government offices in Zomba. Attacks from bees often hindered administrative work, and the public works department (PWD) was continually called in to clear buildings of what had become a troublesome pest - a 'very disagreeable nuisance', as one administrator put it. Local bee-keepers were engaged by the PWD to undertake the task of removing the bees, and, when all else failed, local medicine was used as an insecticide to kill the bees - the well-known herb mlozi (Y, mkuta), Adenia gummifera. As Williamson records, the roots of this plant, which contain cyanogenetic glycoside, are dug and burnt, fresh or dried, and the smoke is used to stupefy the bees (1975: 21, MNA/51/544/20).

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