Monday, July 22, 2013

Protecting Quality Honey

Many of the farmers of Ethiopia rely upon harvesting honey and beeswax as part of their mixed agricultural income. The vast majority of their beekeeping experience involves placing traditional bee hives in trees or high places where they can attract swarms of bees. Once the bees have filled the traditional hives with comb and filled some combs with honey, the farmers drive the bees out of the hives with smoke and cut out the combs. The farmers then crush the combs to separate the honey from the beeswax comb. This technique often yields a low-quality honey. Today's photo shows an Ethiopian beekeeper proudly displaying a comb of honey that she cut from a traditional bee hive. The lower half of the comb contains high-quality, fully ripened honey, capped with beeswax. The upper half of the comb, however, contains brood along with pollen, bee bread, and unripened honey. If the entire comb is crushed together, the honey will be of very low quality, useful only for mead production. Throughout the world, much of the honey harvested in developing countries is used to produce mead honey wine.  Uncapped honey that is not fully ripened and honey containing the protein of brood is suitable for fermenting into mead, however it is not acceptable as honey for storage and consumption. Fully ripened honey lasts virtually forever. By simply cutting apart this comb, this beekeeper can separate the high-quality honey from the lower-quality honey. Each can be sold separately.

It is important that the beekeeper protects the quality of the bees' product. Heavy use of smoke used to drive the bees from traditional hives can alter the delicate flavor of honey. Storage in improper containers can impart flavors as well. Care should be taken to prevent overheating honey in storage, as this can change the honey's flavor and color. Most honey sold to consumers in Ethiopia is packaged as crystallized honey in wide-mouth plastic jars. The farmers deserve a good income for their beekeeping efforts.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The House of Bees

Gebeyehu is a most imaginative beekeeper. I had the pleasure of visiting his farm in Yewbush, Ethiopia. Gebeyehu designed his house to accommodate his family and his bee hives. The sturdy construction is like that of other Amhara farm houses. Eucalyptus poles are plastered with mud. Unlike most area farm houses, that are one story, Gebeyehu’s house is two stories. The upper story is smaller than the lower story, providing an elevated gallery all around the house under a broad, overhanging tin roof. This gallery, surrounding Gebeyehu’s second-story bedroom, holds dozens of bee hives. Three tiers of hive stands hold bee hives facing outward on all four sides of the house. There is space behind all of the bee hives for Gebeyehu to conveniently access the hives. Bees exit the hives in all directions from the second story, flying above the heads of children and adults in the yard. The broad, tin roof above the bee hive gallery shades the hives from the tropical sun.

Gebeyehu’s house of bees contains all three types of bee hives in use in Ethiopia, traditional, transitional top bar hives, and modern. Gebeyehu has modified some of his modern Zander hives by connecting the hive bodies end-to-end instead of atop one another. This arrangement creates a horizontal hive with removable frames. From the outside, this modified Zander hive looks like a Tanzanian top bar hive. This hive gives the beekeeper the advantages of access without lifting heavy hive boxes. The hive is worked like a top bar hive, but it has the sturdy removable frames of a top bar hive. Two of these horizontal hives are visible on the second tier of hives in today’s photo of Gebeyehu’s house. Traditional hives are long cylinders built of cane. Modern Zander hives are upright boxes, usually painted yellow in Ethiopia. A small child tends to her infant sibling snuggled in her backpack while bees fly overhead. People and bees live in harmony here.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Hive Ventilation and Cooling

To determine why some Ethiopian beekeepers are experiencing bee colonies absconding, or abandoning their hives, we look at each of their three types of hive. Honey bees will abscond if there is not enough forage in the area, and then the bees migrate to areas where food is available. This dearth of forage does not seem to be severe enough in some of the areas experiencing absconding. Honey bees will, however, abandon their hive if environmental conditions make the hive completely unsuitable for bees and developing bee brood. After evaluating the Ethiopian traditional hive, the transitional, or top bar hive, and the modern bee hive for size, ability to shed rain water, and ease of defense, we look at the ability of the bees to regulate hive temperature and provide ventilation. Here, we see several problems with the hive designs and the bees’ ability to maintain their hive’s internal environmental conditions. The traditional bee hive, usually constructed of cane, coated with mud or dung, and wrapped in banana leaves, is often plugged so that only a tiny opening exists for bees to enter and exit the hive. There is almost no through-ventilation inside the hive or space for bees to fan their wings at the entrance. The same lack of ventilation exists with both transitional and modern bee hives. Modern Zander bee hives, like the ones shown in today’s photo, are particularly lacking in through-ventilation. A small entrance is the hive’s only outside port. Air circulation in the top of the hive is difficult to maintain. Fortunately, this ventilation problem can be easily solved by cutting a screened hole in the back of the hive.

Beeswax melts at temperatures around 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are reports of wax melting in Ethiopian bee hives. Since bees try to maintain a brood nest temperature around 95 degrees, such wax-melting hive temperatures make these hives completely unsatisfactory. Shade trees and hive stands with elevated roofs protect hives from the tropical sun.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Defensive Bee Behavior

Beekeepers describe honey bees as having a defensive nature. They are not described as being aggressive. Bee behavior is such that guards will effectively defend their hive from intruders. Guard bees check all incoming bees and turn away those from foreign colonies. The guards spread alarm pheromone to alert other worker bees anytime the hive is invaded by insects or mammals. The combined effect of numbers of stinging workers effectively defends the bee hive with its queen, brood, and food stores of honey and pollen. Even though honey bees may rush out of the hive to drive away an intruder by inflicting numerous stings, honey bees do not aggressively hunt or attack people or animals. Honey bees are quite docile while they are away from their hive foraging. Today’s small, black honey bees foraging for nectar and pollen completely ignore children playing around the decorative plant’s flowers. The honey bees of East Africa have a reputation for being among the most defensive bees in the world. However, many of the colonies are not highly defensive.

As part of my work in training Ethiopian beekeepers, I tried to encourage the farmers to work the bee hives gently in the daytime hours as opposed to their common practice of destructively harvesting the hives’ honey and beeswax at night after driving away the bees. Some beekeepers have good experiences and enjoy working their bees, and others seem to be reluctant to handling living bees. Only by examining bee hives in daylight can the beekeepers effectively observe the combs for brood diseases and other hive health issues. Our examination in Amhara of Ethiopia’s three types of bee hives finds that each is well designed to allow the guard bees to effectively protect the colony. Each hive has a small opening for an entrance, giving the guard bees the advantage of defending a small area. Ethiopia’s greatest bee hive pests are ants. Other invaders include wasps, hornets, birds, and small mammals including the honey badger.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Dry Bee Hive

For bees living near the equator, dry and rainy seasons shape the bees’ year. The month of June sees the beginning of a four month rainy season in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region. A bee hive must be able to protect the bees from the elements. The hive must be designed and mounted so that it is protected from rain. We examine each of the three Ethiopian bee hives to see if they are suitable in the rainy season. Traditional hives, though often covered with mud and dung, are usually wrapped with banana leaves, effectively shedding rain. Modern bee hives have a solid cover, making them quite rain proof. Only transitional hives, also known as top bar hives are vulnerable to rainy season problems. Traditional hives are mounted in trees, where they serve as effective swarm catchers. Some traditional hives are mounted on the walls of farmers’ houses, protected from rain by the overhanging thatch or metal roof. Modern and transitional bee hives are mounted on stands in the open. All three types of bee hives are at times mounted on stands with a covered roof as in today’s photo, which shows from left to right a traditional hive, transitional hive, and modern Zander bee hive. The roof above the hives provides for good rain protection as well as shade from Africa’s tropical sun. The space above the hives allows for good air circulation.

Bees in transitional hives are most vulnerable to rain. Top bars are usually covered with some protective material. If the covering is a simple water resistant top, the hive is well protected. However, it is a common practice in Ethiopia to cover transitional top bar hives with a heavy layer of green leaves during the rainy season. While this traditional practice is meant to protect the hive from rainfall, it tends to hold moisture in and around the hive. The moisture adds to the development of chalkbrood, a fungal disease commonly afflicting Ethiopian bee colonies.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bee Hive Size

Honey bees live in cavities. In Ethiopia, natural cavities are hollow trees or crevices in volcanic rock walls. Ethiopian farmers also keep bees in three distinct styles of manmade hives. Traditional bee hives are long baskets, usually constructed from cane or strips of wood. Transitional bee hives, also known as “top bar hives,” are open baskets with strips of wood at the top to hold the bees’ combs. Modern bee hives are wooden boxes with removable frames to hold the bees’ combs. Honey bee colonies will generally maintain their brood nest in a hive as long as there is food available in the region and the hive remains suitable to the bees. To try to determine why the Amhara beekeepers are experiencing their bees' absconding and swarming, we look closely at each of the three manmade bee hives.

The first concern for a bee hive to be suitable for the bees is its size. For the farmers to build up a population of bees capable of producing a surplus of honey the hive must be large enough for the bees to greatly expand their brood nest. In nature, bees often select a cavity with a volume of about 40 liters. After the colony fills this volume, the colony divides; and half of the bees swarm in search of another cavity. We measure traditional and transitional hives and find them to have a volume of about 89 liters. A modern Zander hive with two brood nest boxes measures about 84 liters, probably a suitable volume. It appears that the use of a single Zander brood nest box by some farmers probably leads to brood nest congestion and swarming. The Amhara farmers recognize that they might be able to reduce swarming by adding more hive boxes and frames as bee populations grow. In today’s photo, seasoned Ethiopian beekeeper, Gebeyehu, brings one of his traditional bee hives to the Machakel training facility for us to examine. Hive size is important wherever we keep bees.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Honeycomb Walls

Ethiopia’s Amhara Region is a day’s drive northwest of the capital city of Addis Ababa. Farmers in Amhara, like farmers throughout Sub-Sahara Africa, rely upon honey bees to provide an important part of their farm income. They recognize that the honey bee alone has the ability to harvest pollen and nectar from forests and pastures and produce valuable products of honey and beeswax. The farmers of Amhara asked for assistance. I accepted the USAID-funded assignment of Winrock International to assist the farmers gathering at The Hunger Project-Ethiopia’s Machakel agricultural training facility. The farmers explained that when they harvested honey and beeswax, their product was judged to be of low quality; and their beekeeping added little to their incomes. Despite their best efforts, their honey and beeswax yields seemed to continuously dwindle. Those keeping bees for long periods expressed that beekeeping was easier and yields were greater 15 years earlier. In fact, many of the bee hives that farmers owned sat empty of bees. Many of the farmers blamed herbicides for killing their bees. While some herbicides are used by farmers in an effort to increase production on plowed fields, most fields in the Amhara highlands are plowed by oxen and cultivated by hand ax. Herbicides seemed to me to be an unlikely cause for the farmers’ plight. While herbicides kill weeds and reduce this source of forage for bees, the chemicals themselves are generally considered to be safe for bees.

The Amhara farmers also complained of their losing bees to two common activities of tropical honey bees: absconding from the hives and reproductive swarming. I felt like an investigation into the farmers’ bee hives and their beekeeping practices might help explain these losses. The agricultural fields of Ethiopia’s highlands are interrupted by two of the world’s magnificent river gorges, the Jamma and the Blue Nile. Approaching Machakel, rock walls built of six-sided crystals of volcanic columnar basalt line the paved road offering a honeycomb pattern to this land of bees.