Beekeeping Workshop

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Bees at the end of a log hive.

Reading this week:

  • Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

We just wrapped up the Feed the Future Beekeeping workshop here in Kasama. It was pretty interesting. Beekeeping is a pretty popular Income Generating Activity (IGA) here in Zambia because it is relatively simple and honey sells for a good price. Plus, people like just having honey as a sweetener and stuff.

There is, as usual, a big focus on using local materials at a village level to do beekeeping. The first step in beekeeping is to make a hive, and then bait it. No one uses the kinds of hives you see in America, because those are pretty expensive and no one here sells them anyways. Instead, you’ll pretty commonly see a beehive made out of a log, or bark:

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The above picture is of a beehive made out of a hollowed-out log. Bees will build a hive in pretty much any dark, enclosed space that is made out of natural materials. Besides wood, some people just dig a hole in a termite mound, or build a hive out of reeds and cover it in mud. As long as the container is waterproof, the bees will move in. You do, of course, leave a small hole at one end to let the bees enter and exit the hive. You only want a hole at one end because that encourages the bees to put all their brood combs on one end (where the queen lays eggs), and all of the honey comb at the other.

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This log hive has a trapdoor on the top, about halfway down the hive. This lets the farmer open it up and extract the honeycomb, which hopefully will be in the back half of the hive. The goal is to extract the honeycomb while not interfering with the rest of the hive, so the bees don’t all die or move out.

To encourage the bees to move into the hive you built for them, you do have to bait it. To bait a hive, you just melt some beeswax and put it in the hive and near the entrance to the hive. Swarming bees will smell the beeswax, discover your hive, decide it is a nice place, and move in.

The other type of hive you typically see is a top-bar beehive. There are a few variations on a top-bar beehive. There are top-bar beehives with straight sides, sides at a 60 degree angle, and made out of various materials including wood or brick.

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A hanging top-bar beehive, with entrance holes and landing pad on the front.

The trick with a top-bar beehive is the top-bars. These are wooden slats exactly 33mm wide that form the top of the hive (in the above picture, there is an additional roof, so you can’t see the top-bars). This width lets the bees build comb while maintaining adequate bee-space between the combs. Bee-space is the distance between the combs that let the bees walk on the combs. By baiting the middle of the top bar, you can convince the bees to build combs along them. The biggest advantage here is that it lets you extract comb sorta like you do with the hives back home:

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A top bar with attached comb (and bees). The hive here is relatively small so just a small amount of comb is attached to the top bar.

Using a top-bar beehive makes beekeeping more sustainable because the beekeeper isn’t forced to cause as much damage to the hive when they’re harvesting honey. However, getting a top-bar beehive built, especially with top bars cut to relatively exacting specifications, can be kinda hard. This can make them out of reach for beginner beekeepers, which is why we also learn about more traditional hives. My strategy for this workshop was to just bring the town carpenter. I figure he can learn how to build the boxes and then we’ll have a source of them in the village.

Besides building hives, we also learned about honey processing. We learned a few different methods of this as well, and the focus was again on things you can find in the village.

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The above picture is us sieving out honey. Because we were at a lodge and low on buckets, we used a now very sticky hot water heater as our bucket. But the strategy here is to put a bunch of mashed up comb and honey into some sieve cloth at the top of the bucket, and then leave it in the sun. The sun warms it up to where the wax becomes soft, and the honey just filters out into the bottom of the bucket.

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Me, stirring some wax.

Besides honey, we learned to process wax. After you extract the honey, you just take all the leftover gunk and then heat it up along with some water. Once it is all melted, you scoop the melted mixture into another rough cloth (we used a mealie-meal sack) and then filter it through the cloth, squeezing to get all the wax out. This leaves behind dead bug bits, sticks, and propolis, while the water/wax mixture falls into a bucket below. As it cools, the wax separates out from the water, giving you a cooled chunk of wax that you can use to bait more hives or make candles, etc.

Overall it was a good workshop and I am excited to hopefully raise some bees in the village. It’s a great activity to earn some additional income for farmers, especially since it doesn’t require a whole lot of labor. Plus, getting fresh honey right from the source is about the height of luxury around here. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Oh! This was probably the coolest thing we learned about: they make elephant fences out of beehives.

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