Although bee-keeping with frame hives had first been introduced by early missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century, throughout much of the colonial period the collecting of honey was either through traditional beekeeping methods, or by sporadic and rather opportunistic 'raiding' of the hives in order to obtain the honey. Soon after independence the Malawi government, principally through the Ministry of Agriculture, began to implement various feasibility studies and surveys in order to ascertain the viability of bee-keeping and to encourage the development of beekeeping projects. The aim was both to increase the production of honey and beeswax - for there was little honey available in the shops, and it was at a very high price by local standards, and also to provide a viable source of alternative income for rural people. Between 1968 and 1973 a beekeeping survey was established in the northern region, at Mzimba, Karonga and Rumphi, by the Agricultural Planning Unit. Some fourteen bee-keepers were recorded, with around, 1978 hives, and they produced 2,630 kg of honey and 295 kg of wax (A. S. Banda et al. 1991: 3). In the following decade further small projects were established at Salima and in the vicinity of Nyika National Park. But the important breakthrough came in July 1989, with the establishment of the Malawi German Beekeeping Development Project, with its headquarters at Mzuzu, and with financial assistance from the German government through GTZ. Its overall aim was to develop modern bee-keeping throughout Malawi. Its main focus of attention, however, was on the 'border zone' adjacent to Nyika National Park, the largest conservation area in Malawi, covering an area of some 3,134 km2. An important water catchment area, and holding viable populations of the larger mammals - particularly zebra, reedbuck, eland, roan, leopard and hyena, the park was enlarged in 1978 to include all the escarpment areas. This involved the resettlement of several local villages to other areas (S. A. Johnson 1995: 11). As access to the park was denied - areas that had formerly been used for subsistence hunting as well as for bee-keeping - much resentment was created between local people and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. This enmity, it was realized, was not conducive to long-term wildlife conservation. With the introduction of community-based wildlife conservation in the 1980s, largely inspired by the late Richard Bell, who had been research officer at Kasungu National Park (see my article on wildlife conservation in Malawi, Morris 2001a), it was felt that it was important to allow local people to utilize resources within the conservation area on a controlled and sustainable basis. The most important resource, besides edible caterpillars, was of course honey - particularly as there was a long tradition of bee-keeping in the area. The bee-keeping project therefore had two principal objectives:
1. To induce a change of attitude among local people around the national park towards the conservation of natural resources - especially the wildlife, which was an important tourist attraction.
2. To develop bee-keeping as an alternative income-generating activity for rural people, who are principally subsistence agriculturalists. In addition, through the project it was hoped to make honey more readily available, and at an affordable price, for the average Malawian salary-earner (A. S. Banda et al. 1991: 6).
In order to achieve these objectives the project, over the seven years of its existence - it was phased out in 1996, attempted in a number of ways to develop bee-keeping as an economically viable activity among rural people - by helping to establish bee-keeping clubs, and giving training, advice and support to local bee-keepers; by training extension workers in bee-keeping; by encouraging local NGO's to support and take over beekeeping projects, especially those relating to the marketing of honey and wax; and to introduce modern bee-keeping methods that were both affordable and sustainable. It also produced a 'Beekeeping Handbook', but this was never available to the general public, though some material found its way into a useful booklet 'Kuweta Njuchi' ('conserve the bee'), written in Nyanja by Francis Epulani, and produced by the Wildlife Society of Malawi, with the support of GTZ.
The project recognized and emphasized the fact that successful beekeeping was only possible if certain crucial conditions were met. What was essentially needed was an area of woodland in which hives could be placed, and which held enough suitable vegetation - the 'bee pasture' - to enable bees to collect nectar (for honey), pollen (for bee bread) and propolis (resin for sealing the hives). Climatic conditions and access to water were also crucial. The project also emphasized the important benefits that local people could derive from bee-keeping - the honey, which is particularly nourishing and well-liked; a viable source of income from the sale of honey and wax; the ecological importance of bees as pollinators -essential in the generation of plants; the enjoyment that bee-keeping offered as an activity or pastime; and the fact the bee-keeping does not compete with other agricultural activities. But what was particularly important about the project was in the promotion of the top bar hive as the most viable form of hive for local bee-keepers - in contrast to both the traditional log or bark hives and the frame hives that had long been used by European bee-keepers. The top bar hive is in the form of a long box, measuring some 120 cm x 50 cm, with sloping sides and a narrow base, and a movable protective lid. The most common timber used for the hive is malaina (Gmelina arborea), which is rich in resin and resistant to termites. Entrances to the hive consist of ten small triangular holes 10 mm across at one end. The hive is hung from a tree 1-3 m from the ground by means of a wire.
In many of the project's reports the name of the American clergyman/ bee-keeper the Rev. L. L. Langstroth is often mentioned. For in 1851 Langstroth essentially perfected the first practical hive with movable frames - the frame hive, for he noticed that bees in building their combs respect a gap of 8-9 mm - what he described in his notebook as 'bee space'. The colony strictly follows this rule, to enable bees to move freely on adjacent comb surfaces. Yet although the frame hives are now the most sophisticated and, under certain conditions, the most productive of all hives, yielding high-quality honey, they are expensive and exacting to make, especially for an ordinary village carpenter. The project therefore decided to promote the top bar hive developed in Kenya in the 1970s. Here a project team discovered that if top bars, exactly 33 mm wide, were placed in a wooden hive with sides sloping at an angle of 67 degrees the bees left a 'bee space' both between the combs and the sloping walls. This made possible the making of a much simpler hive, with top bars instead of frames (A. S. Banda et al. 1991; Crane 1999: 422). The top bar hive (mng'oma) has the advantages that it is easily made by a local carpenter, has small entrance holes at the side that keep out natural enemies, especially 'robber' bees, and is easily opened and inspected, with a movable lid and removable top bars. It has a disadvantage in that combs easily break if not held in an upright position. Top bar hives may be placed on stands, but usually they are hung by wire in suitable localities - either in gardens where bee forage is plentiful or in the woodland.
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Companies that have beekeeping stuff deal with all the equipment that is required for this business, like attire for bee keeping which is essential from head to torso, full body suits and just head gear. Along with this equipment they also sell journals and books on beekeeping to help people to understand this field better. Some of the better known beekeeping companies have been in the business for more than a hundred years.