Saturday, April 21, 2012

Winrock International

Agriculture is our most effective usage of solar energy. Through photosynthesis, plants produce food from the sun’s energy, ultimately accounting for virtually all of our food. We eat fruit, seeds, and plant parts; or we eat animals that consume plants. Two important food products of the flowering plants can only be harvested by bees: nectar and pollen. We rely upon honey bees to exploit the carbohydrate of nectar and the protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals of pollen. Bees make honey from nectar. Valued since early man robbed bee trees, honey is considered the only food unchanged since cave men gathered it. Among the highly valued products of the bee hive are honey and beeswax, which are important sources of income in many countries. The value of bee hive products largely depends upon the skill and capabilities of the beekeeper and those processing, handling, transporting, and storing the goods. In most developing countries, honey is primarily used in the production of mead, or honey wine. Usually harvested by crushing honeycombs, the honey contains considerable amounts of beeswax, pollen, and some protein from bee brood. In this form, the honey is most suitable for fermentation into mead. More modern honey extraction and handling techniques produce pure honey sold at a premium on world markets.

Tod Underhill is currently in Ethiopia serving in Winrock International’s Farmer-to-Farmer program assisting beekeepers solve problems in honey handling, processing, and transportation. This is one of many USAID funded project seeking to improve agriculture in developing countries. Though Ethiopia’s semi-tropical climate and diversity of flowering plants make for large honey harvests, the quality of the honey is often low. Tod is teaching the Ethiopian beekeepers the importance of harvesting “ripened” honey that the bees have capped with beeswax. Uncapped honey tends to have a high moisture content, and the honey may ferment in storage. A friend, Phil Craft, the retired Kentucky State Apiarist, also took a Farmer-to-Farmer assignment in Bangladesh. You can follow Phil’s recent travels at

Monday, April 2, 2012

Top Bar Beekeeping

Top bar hives, known as “transitional hives” in Africa, are bee hives without the full frames used in modern hives to hold honeycombs. Bees attach combs to simple pieces of wood called “top bars.” Hives employing top bars are considered to be transitional because they are an intermediate step between traditional hives and modern hives. Traditional hives are woven baskets built in designs passed down from one generation of beekeepers to the next. In Ethiopia, traditional hives are long cane cylinders, which are mounted high in trees. In other parts of the world, traditional hives may be skeps, round overturned baskets. The inexpensive traditional hives, constructed of locally abundant plant materials, are easily built by people skilled in basket weaving. However, traditional bee hives present some disadvantages for the beekeeper. They offer no way to remove and replace honeycombs, to manipulate the hive, or to inspect for hive problems or brood diseases. Transitional hives, built from locally available materials, are also inexpensive. They offer the beekeeper several advantages. Located on the ground, they are safer to work with than those mounted high in trees. Transitional hives do not have heavy parts, such as hive bodies and honey supers, to be lifted. They can, thus, be worked by those of lesser strength. Honey is usually harvested from top bar hives by hand-crushing the honeycomb and straining to separate the beeswax from the honey, saving the cost of a honey extractor. These advantages make top bar hives attractive to some individuals in developed countries.

I am assisting beekeeper and pottery artist Melissa Bridgman start a colony of honey bees in a top bar hive. To guide the bees’ comb construction, we painted the center of the top bars with chemical-free beeswax. A swarm of bees built combs on the top bars, temporarily attached to Langstroth top bars. The well-fed swarm readily accepted the top bars, built out comb, and produced brood. These top bars will be transferred to Melissa’s top bar hive.