Leon Marshall
for National Geographic NewsNovember 4, 2002

It may be widely known as the “killer bee,” but to some of South Africa’s many poor people, the African bee is proving a life-saver.

With the country’s government under heavy pressure to reduce unemployment levels of more than 30 percent, beekeeping is being touted as a way of helping many families earn a living.

And if a university-driven experiment works out, domestic sales and exports of an alcoholic beverage made from honey could become a lucrative business for some communities.

A project called Beekeeping for Poverty Relief is one of a number of “green” initiatives that delegates from around the world learned about at the World Summit on Sustainable Development that took place in Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4.

The potential social and economic benefits of beekeeping are tied to the critical role that bees play in the pollination of crops and other plants in nature.

Beekeeping in South Africa was largely introduced from Europe. Yet the practice did not become an integral part of traditional farming in South Africa as it has in some other African countries, where families commonly have beehives for domestic use, said Elize Lundall-Magnuson, an entomologist who manages the Beekeeping for Poverty Relief program, which is sponsored by the South African Agricultural Research Council.

South Africa’s indigenous groups have generally obtained honey by hunting for the nests of bees in the wild.

“To this day, many people remain honey hunters who often destroy the hives. With this project people are trained to correctly extract the honey and turn it into a viable project by becoming beekeepers,” said Lundall-Magnuson.

She is not clear why beekeeping trends are so different in South Africa. She thinks it might be related to the kind of flora that’s predominant in the country.

Beekeeping, she notes, is more customary in countries closer to the Equator, where the types of plants that proliferate in forests and other areas of vegetation produce far more nectar.

Growth Industry?

The more customary practice of honey hunting among South Africa’s indigenous groups might be explained in part by the relative scarcity of bees in the country’s vast unforested stretches of land.

Also, the country’s black people, denied ownership of land for decades under the former political system of apartheid, had few opportunities to raise domesticated bees without secure access to land on which to keep hives.

Now, nearly a decade after the program was introduced in South Africa, 35 Beekeeping for Poverty Relief projects are operating across the country. Many more are expected as poor communities start seeing the benefits of the existing projects.

Ron Botha, president of the KwaZulu Natal Bee Farmers Association, said the established industry produces about 3,000 tons of honey a year, which falls far short of South Africa’s domestic demand. Large amounts of honey have to be imported, but because of South Africa’s bad currency exchange rate at the moment, this is so expensive that there is a big shortage in the market.

“I therefore see tremendous possibilities for beekeeping as a poverty-relief program. There is an enormous gap in the market which these new producers can fill,” he said.

In some instances, formerly destitute participants in the program have used profits from the beekeeping projects to acquire vehicles for transporting the bees and products.

“One hive can produce honey worth more than a thousand rand (a hundred dollars) a year. For people who before had nothing, this is good money. So whole families work hard to get as many hives going as they can,” said Lundall-Magnuson.

Some communities are deriving additional income by producing beeswax candles and other products.

Honey Beer

The efforts to find out whether a beverage produced from honey could become commercially viable are being done by scientists in the biotechnology department of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, a small city on South Africa’s eastern seaboard.

Garth Cambray, a researcher who heads the project, said the beverage, a type of mead, is made from honey, pollen, and the indigenous imoela herb (Trichodiadema intonsum). The recipe comes from indigenous people in South Africa who have been using it for ages.

An initial beekeeping project and production plant have been established, and if the beverage—called by its traditional name, iQhilika—proves popular in the market, the demand for honey to produce the drink could soar.

“We have had professional wine tasters taste the product, and they were impressed,” said Cambray. “We have also had people taste it who have long been making their own home brews from traditional recipes, and they were delighted with the quality of ours.”

He said iQhilika cannot be sold yet from shop shelves, as the business is still awaiting a government license that is required under South Africa’s liquor laws. But it is already being offered through the Internet.

Lundall-Magnuson said the relative simplicity of beekeeping makes it appealing as a poverty-relief program. Prospective beekeepers need to learn only fundamental skills such as safe handling of bees while collecting honey or when swarms are being transferred to the hives.

It is also relatively cheap for beginners to get started. Applicants selected for the Beekeeping for Poverty Relief program are given their first hives free of charge, and the land on which to house the hives is usually allocated by tribal authorities or municipalities.

She says the Agricultural Research Council has projected that new beekeeping businesses could provide income opportunities for some 6,500 formerly unemployed people within the next five years.

Beekeeping is not as dangerous as it is widely believed to be, said Lundall-Magnuson, adding that the African bee’s fierce reputation comes from comparisons with its more docile European counterpart.

“We certainly do not perceive it to be a ‘killer bee,’” she said. “We teach people what protective clothing to wear, the technique of handling bees, and to do it in a calm and friendly manner. And soon we find their fear actually switching to love of the bees.”


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