Beekeeping in Tropical Africa

By James J. Field, March 2013

Frame beekeeping in Kenya

The writer was a keen beekeeper in Nairobi in the 1960’s, and in view of the large number of good people advising on beekeeping for Africa today, feels that some comments may be useful.

At that time the Kenya Topbar Hive had not made its appearance, and frame hives of various patterns were in use, with the need to use rather cumbersome extractors to recover the excellent honey being produced. ‘Wild’ bee colonies were very common and I got interested when bees colonised a public fire hydrant on the roadside at the end of my garden.

It proved an easy matter to capture wild colonies by the simplest of methods. A catcher box, holding just 4 frames with foundation, would be hung up in any likely spot and would usually be filled within a week or so. Indeed, the first proper hive I made was taken over by a swarm whilst I was still in the process of wiping some hot wax over the interior. A case of literally – stand back, here they come. Beekeeping has for a very long time attracted the interest of amateurs and once started on the subject it soon proves so fascinating that even a recent newcomer starts to think of ways to improve his hobby. Those of a scientific way of thought are no less susceptible to the desire to learn more and apply their new knowledge to improve the industry, sometimes without giving sufficient reading and thought to what has been experienced before. However, beekeeping has been around for a very long time indeed, both in tropical Africa and in other parts of the world where the honeybee has existed since ancient times, and it cannot surprise a thinking person that there are other ways to do things, and perhaps better ways which may already have been perfected somewhere else. With such a widespread industry as beekeeping, with more races of honeybees than we knew a few years ago, new diseases and enemies of our bees, with new crops being planted requiring the pollination services of our faithful servant, we should take particular care before recommending a new practice to avoid future problems. I have in mind the transplanting of African bees to Brazil last century – a good idea at the time – but not thought out fully. Every African beekeeper already knew that their bees worked harder and longer than European bees but they also knew that their bees were highly aggressive and would take over weaker colonies if a chance offered and times were hard. Now we see them spreading across north America, or at least the warmer parts, and their hardworking capacity has been forgotten by beekeepers who were familiar with more placid types, and the public have labelled them ‘Killer bees’. Some ‘researchers’ even suggest that mutation(s) could account for their aggression when disturbed. African beekeepers have no need to believe much of these theories. We have all known of fatal accidents when the bees have been disturbed by children in unfavourable circumstances.

Some ‘researchers’ even suggest that mutation(s) could account for their aggression when disturbed. African beekeepers have no need to believe much of these theories. ”

Rather, we should harness their good qualities and keep them quiet by providing cool and protected hives, and interfering with them no more than we need. Even ants can render a good hive touchy and ready to defend at the slightest disturbance. This latter point leads me on to suggest that although bees rarely have the benefit of an alighting board in the wild, such an aid can prevent heavily laden bees returning to the hive from missing their landing and being seized by ants waiting below. For the same reason, the ground below should be kept clear as these wretched ants even cling to grass stems to get closer to their prey. Believe me! And of course we make our stands ‘ant proof’ with grease and kerosene traps.

Don’t re-invent the wheel

For 99% of beekeepers in Africa, beekeeping is not a hobby but an important money earner, and the beekeeper cannot afford to spend any more time on an individual colony than absolutely necessary. Except perhaps in the special case of migrant honey producers, who follow the flowering of trees or fruit crops (and I would like to hear from anyone in this category whose experience may prove otherwise) I believe the frame hive to be unsuitable for use in tropical Africa. It has been comprehensively beaten by the Topbar Hive. I like to think that the simple and cheap construction of the Topbar Hive, either the Kenya or Tanganyika type, with the ability to harvest honey without disturbing the bees, avoids the major problem of frame hives for our more aggressive types of bee which will produce a pandemonium of robbing and fighting minutes after a full frame is exposed in daylight. You can even practice some degree of management with the Topbar Hive if you are so inclined, but for the vast majority of beekeepers in Africa, they have enough trouble with weather, ants and animals to contend with already, not to mention the Masai boys who dare each other to push over a hive and run for it.

I believe the frame hive to be unsuitable for use in tropical Africa. It has been comprehensively beaten by the Topbar Hive

Dr FG Smith – former Senior Apiculturist, Western Australia*

I want now to acknowledge my debt to this author, a former Tanganyika Government servant who was deeply involved in the beekeeping industry of that country and who also gave attention to the production of beeswax and honey for export. He recognised that the production of both honey and wax would provide a valuable cash income for those involved and by maintaining the necessary world trade standards, would also bring in valuable foreign exchange. At the time he was active in East Africa the Topbar hive had not yet been seen, and I for one soon found he was right when he suggested that frame hives were not the answer unless a bee house was employed to separate the farmer from the guard bees outside. His two books, both entitled Beekeeping in the Tropics, also went deeply into other sides of the business, covering such diverse subjects as keeping bees in skeps, as well as bark hives, and preparation of honey for export as well as village methods of extracting both honey and wax to produce a high quality product. The result of this work in Tanganyika was that the value of bee products exported exceeded the value of timber products from the same source. The value of these books cannot be over rated and fortunately both are available today, though most older folk I know seem to have lent theirs and not seen them again for longer than they care to say.

Varroa – a new enemy

African bees have had to contend with harsh conditions of drought, bushfire and heavy rain downpours since time immemorial and the attentions of honey hunters not only resulted in a group of specialist birds that guide them to the bees nest, but also produced aggressive bee types which could quickly find a new home when driven out by man or other natural disaster. As such, bee swarms are common and any empty container may be used in emergency. Even a branch of a tree!


Photograph: A large colony of African Bees nesting on a branch outdoors.

I have seen parked cars, metal poles, nest boxes put up for wild birds and even the under side of the cement cover of a ‘long drop’ bush latrine used by bees – the last with hilarious results when a human tried to use the same place.

But for us the points that matter are that

1: Empty/new Topbar hives will be colonised without any baiting, and this avoids infection from old wax etc, and

2: The bees will tend to leave or abscond from the hive if troubled by varroa or other pests.

They may not move more than a few feet to a hive alongside, but they may still leave the pest behind. As such I think this new enemy may not prove so damaging to us as elsewhere, and may lose all importance in Africa before long. Of course, there is more to it than that, and some consider the imposing of larger size cells to make larger bees by using larger foundation makes matters worse, and perhaps many other ‘management’ techniques also worsen the problem, but for African beekeepers these have no importance and so I hope the disease will be beaten by more natural methods which allow the bees to manage things for themselves. After all, they have been doing so for an immensity of time already.

Contact me

Readers may contact me, if they feel it worth their time, by email (below) and I will try to reply promptly, but make no promises. These days I live in Ghana and keep Vines, ornamental Wildfowl and Pheasants as a hobby. Bees are sometimes resident in my garden and sometimes not. At 76 I seem to be busy enough without keeping bees and do not really want to be called out to deal with bees in awkward places.

My email address is: jamesjfield(at)live.co.uk

*Two publications by Dr Smith are below, the first being more complete:

  • Smith FG 1953 Beekeeping in the Tropics OUP/UK
  • Smith FG 1960 Beekeeping in the Tropics Longman Green & Co/UK

Please note:

You can purchase a copy of the book mentioned above from Amazon.com. Please click on the link opposite.

Thank You!

I am very grateful to James for sharing his valuable experiences and insights into beekeping in Africa through this article. Tom Carroll, Apiconsult.com

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