Beekeeping, development, and achieving project success

I just spent a marvellous couple of days at the Bees for Development symposium. Bees for Development is a charity that seeks to improve livelihoods – in sub-Saharan African communities and beyond – by promoting sustainable beekeeping. The idea is that the poorest people in a community receive training in how to keep bees, they take it up as an income-generating activity – the honey, beeswax and other hive products can all be used or sold, providing money that could be spent on things like healthcare and children’s education.

A LOT of NGOs have joined this movement, and it also has appeal to some academics. And this is where the problem can appear. Some projects do work, but…apparently there has been a history of NGOs and others turning up in a community with short-term funding, good intentions and a lorryload of Western style “Langstroth” hives or similar (these are of the type we are used to in the UK, box shaped with frames in rows that can be slotted in and out and re-ordered). They might provide a week or two of classroom-style training, and then leave the beekeepers to form a group, and expect the money to start rolling into the community.

Anyone who has tried beekeeping in the UK has probably realised that it’s not something you can necessarily do well with a week of theoretical training. Even more so when you’re working with defensive African honeybees rather than docile Apis mellifera mellifera or A. m. ligustica. Unsurprisingly, on reflection, there is a high failure rate in such projects. (I would love to read about Langstroth-based successes that have held up under scrutiny from external impact evaluation – please send examples.)

The symposium contained a lot of very experienced people – from NGOs, from honey companies and commodities traders, and from academia – with experience in successful beekeeping projects, and the consensus of the room is that Langstroth type hives are just not suitable for the majority of African beekeeping systems, and that development work should focus less on giving “stuff” and more on imparting skills and support via field-based training and long-term follow up over years. Systems with higher success rates tend to use local knowledge (ethnoapiculture?) and local materials (if you’re in a remote rural village and your Langstroth hive splits, warps or gets eaten by termites, how will you get spare parts?) and a different approach. There was an emphatic agreement that calling movable frame hives like Langstroths “modern” and log/bark hives “traditional” was doing a disservice to African beekeeping techniques (much as evolutionary biologists avoid calling silverfish “primitive” now – they too have undergone aeons of evolution and adaptation and are entirely appropriate to the niche they fill). (However, there is literature discussing the idea that in some areas, log and bark hives can be deeply unsustainable where they contribute to deforestation.)

Movable frame hives are expensive, so the beekeeper needs those hives continually occupied to make them “earn their keep”. Conversely, in an extensive log or basket hive system, the hives are cheap to make and so the beekeeper can put up many dozen across a landscape with the expectation that only half would be occupied at any one time. This also permits more frequent swarming behaviour – which might be undesirable in urban UK towns but has been argued to facilitate natural disease control in feral honeybees by allowing a young queen and workers to leave most parasites and pests behind in the old nest.

An observation made at the meeting was that while movable frame hives produce more honey – when heavily worked and managed – log hives tend to produce more wax. Wax is possible more valuable than honey in some systems where honey quality is variable, so this is no bad thing.

I’m still on the fence about some aspects of global beekeeping – mostly the carrying capacity of a habitat for large populations of honeybees when we’re already seeing declines in solitary bees across many landscapes. But some data were presented showing that cashew systems in West Africa see small-to-huge increases in yield per hectare when honeybee hives are added, so there is apparently a major pollination deficit in some cropping systems that can be addressed by adding semi-managed bees. I wonder whether habitat management to support 100% wild pollinators could “plug the gap” similarly.

There seems to be a lot of potential in beekeeping for development, but it needs to be done right – training not gifts, market access, and information on quality control (“If the price for our honey seems low, we just add more water,” was apparently the claim from one village!). There are also complicating factors (in some areas it is seen as a poor person’s activity, something where everyone is aiming to make enough money that they can afford to do something else instead; in others, hive theft and honey theft are big threats). But by promoting it in a way that is appropriate to local conditions for some communities it seems to deliver real benefits.


Amulen, D. R., D’Haese, M., Ahikiriza, E., Agea, J. G., Jacobs, F. J., de Graaf, D. C., Smagghe, G. & Cross, P. (2017). The buzz about bees and poverty alleviation: Identifying drivers and barriers of beekeeping in sub-Saharan Africa. PLoS ONE, 12(2), e0172820.

Carroll, T., & Kinsella, J. (2013). Livelihood improvement and smallholder beekeeping in Kenya: the unrealised potential. Development in Practice, 23(3), 332-345.

Gupta, R. K., Reybroeck, W., van Veen, J. W., & Gupta, A. (2014). Beekeeping for poverty alleviation and livelihood security.

Loftus, J. C., Smith, M. L., & Seeley, T. D. (2016). How honey bee colonies survive in the wild: testing the importance of small nests and frequent swarming. PloS ONE, 11(3), e0150362.

Nel, E., & Illgner, P. (2004). The contribution of bees to livelihoods in southern Africa. Rights, resources and rural development: community-based natural resource management in Southern Africa, 127-134.

Njau, M. A., Mpuya, P. M., & Mturi, F. A. (2009). Apiculture potential in protected areas: the case of Udzungwa Mountains National Park, Tanzania. International Journal of Biodiversity Science & Management, 5(2), 95-101.