Traditional Beekeeping

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As the African honey-bee, unlike its Asian counterpart, is a cavity-nesting bee, bee keeping using fixed hives developed in Africa from a very early period. Indeed, so-called 'traditional' bee-keeping was evident in Egypt from around 2400 bc. Bees and honey are mentioned several times in the Bible, and though the phrase may be simply metaphorical Canaan is described as 'a land flowing with milk and honey' (Exodus 3:17). Both wax and honey were important as items of trade, and wax had invaluable uses for writing tablets, for candles, and for embalming (Cansdale 1970: 245). Several factors may have been conducive to the development of bee-keeping - an abundance of bee forage but a lack of suitable nesting sites, a growing human population that practised agriculture and had an increasing need for honey and wax, and the availability of pots and baskets to make suitable hives (Crane 1999: 161). Thus the earliest records that we have of African peoples south of the Sahara, including those in Malawi, suggest that bee-keeping was widely practised. It involved the making of artificial beehives of various kinds and placing these high in trees in a suitable woodland locality. Among the more common types were cylindrical bark-hives made from the outer bark of Brachystegia trees, log hives, woven or basket hives made of split bamboo or various plant materials, and clay pots. The making of these hives often indicated superb craftsmanship. There was, however, less ingenuity in bee-management in Africa, Crane suggests, than in other more temperate parts of the world (1999: 258).

In Malawi, as throughout much of south-central Africa where Brachystegia woodland is predominant, log and bark hives seem to have been in common use during the pre-colonial era. The cylindrical bark hives, made from the outer bark of mombo (Brachystegia Boehmii) measured around 150 cm long and 40 cm in diameter. The log hives were usually made of the wood of the mlombwa (Pterocarpus angolensis) or mtondo (Cordyla africana) trees. But considerable skills were utilized by local people in their bee-keeping, although the African honey-bee (Apis mellifera) is notorious for its swarming habits. For not only is there the normal reproductive swarm, in which around half the worker bees swarm and with the old queen bee search out a new nesting site - such swarms can be very spectacular, but the whole colony may at times abscond, leaving a particular site in search of new foraging areas for food, or because unduly disturbed. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of the absconding bee colonies in Malawi are due to the lack of food resources at a particular site (A. S. Banda et al. 1991: 46). Local bee-keepers therefore use various aromatic herbs, such as mpungabwe (Ocimum canum) to induce the bees to colonize the hives, as well as smearing the interior of the hives with wax or propolis - the resin collected by bees from various trees. Yet, to be successful, local bee-keepers had to know which were the best sites in which to place the hives, both in relation to microclimatic conditions and suitable forage, how best to make the artificial hives attractive to bees, and how to counter the maraudings of ants and the honey badger.

Contemporary bee-keepers, like earlier colonial administrators, tend to emphasize the destructive nature of traditional bee-keeping - the making of a log or bark hive involved the destruction of a mature tree, and the harvesting of the honey often entailed the liberal use of smoke and fire, which resulted in the colony's either being killed or absconding, or even in the burning of the woodland itself. In ecological terms traditional beekeeping is therefore deemed to be both expensive and outdated. But the economic importance of honey in pre-colonial Africa, including Malawi, cannot be doubted - as a food resource, in the making of alcoholic drinks, and in the use of both honey and wax as items of trade, as well as its having a cultural significance (on early bee-keeping in Africa see Bodenheimer 1951: 165-85; Crane 1999: 258-69).

Although bee-keeping was always important as an economic activity in Malawi, over the last fifty years or so the craft has largely disappeared. This has been due mainly to an increasing human population - which has doubled since I first came to Malawi in 1958, and now stands at over 10 million; and this growth has largely been at the expense of the Brachystegia woodland. The opening up of areas for subsistence agriculture, as well as the development of estates devoted to such cash crops as tea, coffee and tobacco, has inevitably led to a reduction in areas of woodland for bee forage. In addition, around 20 per cent of Malawi's land area is protected, either as forest reserves or as wildlife protection areas. Honey-hunting and traditional bee-keeping - like hunting - have therefore become marginal activities among Malawian people, even though the demand for honey among the urban population is high. This has led in recent years to a sustained effort, on the part of the Malawi government and various development agencies, to encourage modern methods of bee-keeping.

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Beekeeping for Beginners

Beekeeping for Beginners

The information in this book is useful to anyone wanting to start beekeeping as a hobby or a business. It was written for beginners. Those who have never looked into beekeeping, may not understand the meaning of the terminology used by people in the industry. We have tried to overcome the problem by giving explanations. We want you to be able to use this book as a guide in to beekeeping.

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