Two groups are operating in the village. Group A has fifteen members and Group B has twenty members. Women make up about a quarter of each group and own hives but hire men to place hives in the forest and to harvest honey. I was told that this is because they cannot climb trees (the kanga or kitenge, which are the typical fabric skirts or dresses worn by women, get in the way), though I suspect responsibility for children and domestic obligations are larger limitations. It has been the inclination of western non-profits to use beekeeping as a tool for liberating women, but pragmatically the current situation is probably sufficient or else women can be very effective for creating secondary goods (candles, cosmetics, or even just processing raw wax and honey) which increase profits and frees men to increase their numbers of hives. Women can also be trained for making bee suits, or protectives as they are called here, but I have digressed.
The members of Group A have a total of 1,987 hives made from bark or grass with a few box style. Most of the hives are owned individually but sixty seven are owned by the group. The members of Group B, which is newly formed, have 200 total hives - fifty box hives (half owned by the group and half by individuals) and 150 local hives. They get the same amount of honey from local hives and box hives (10-15 L per harvest). They say it is easier to work in the box hives (Tanzanian Top Bar), which are built locally, but also say that they are very expensive.
As Staford translated my questions into Swahili I found myself very impressed with the records each of these men kept. Each had a notebook with pages and pages of data on numbers of hives, historical group membership, volume of honey harvested, etc from previous seasons which has been very useful for the cooperative in keeping track of its constituency and outputs. As is common, the men were not just beekeepers, but were also farming (corn, potatoes, maybe even tobacco) between honey flows.
We departed and soon arrived at the beehives just outside of the village. I was shown the traditional tools for harvesting - rope, a large paddle and spoon for manipulating honeycomb, a smoking bundle, and various buckets and tubs to contain the harvest. Each of these were shown to me and described as the "traditional" rope, "traditional" smoking bundle, etc. However, we all laughed a bit when the very modern-looking "traditional" pliers and "traditional" flashlight (torch) were revealed.
I'll let pictures (with captions) tell the rest of the story...
|Timotheo primes the smoker as the rest of the party prepares to lower the hive.|
|The chosen one.|
I had been told all kinds of stories about how horrible it is to harvest honey from local style hives - bad for bees, bad for honey, painful for beekeepers. Maybe it was beginner's luck, but we sustained zero bee casualties from stings and, even better, no stings for beekeepers. The honey was harvested in the comb, which is made perfectly by the bees and we walked away hopeful that the bees would remain in the hive and rebuild their colony. The process was carried out rapidly and delicately so I think the bees experienced a minimal amount of stress, or at least no more than the experience by most other honey harvesting methods.
Sure, brood were taken from the hive (so many future bees were killed), selecting only sealed comb honey was impossible, and there is probably a fifty/fifty chance that the bees will abscond. There also was no consideration of the queen, so there is a chance that she was hurt in the process. However, this was not the horror show of flaming bee hives, charred bees, and dirt crusted honey many government officials would have had me believe and none of the drawbacks mentioned above are compelling enough reasons to abandon the most sustainable and time-tested beekeeping technology in the country. If any improvements could be made in the process itself I would suggest improving knowledge of the queen and of the importance of leaving enough brood and honey behind. Also, beekeepers could place more value on avoiding brood comb. They should not be told to never eat brood, but could just be encouraged to take more care when harvesting. I suspect beekeepers are no longer excited about brood food when they get to their one hundredth hive, but would prefer to not be killing bee children.