Beekeeping can be an interesting hobby that also supplements your income. It does not require much capital to start and generates healthy and nutritious honey and other by-products.
Harare News spoke to Mike Schmolke who has 50 years experience in beekeeping and training. Schmolke is also the author of the book Beekeeping in Zimbabwe with Top Bar Hives. He says, “A lot of people are becoming interested in keeping bees and most of them don’t know where to start or what to do. When bees are properly kept and well-cared for beekeeping is not only a pleasure, but also profitable. But it is important that you learn how to work with bees first.”
In order to make honey, bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers and plants when they are in bloom. They use their long, tube-like tongues like straws to suck the nectar out of the flowers, store it in their stomachs and carry it to the beehive. While inside the bee’s stomach for about half an hour, the nectar mixes with the proteins and enzymes produced by the bees, converting the nectar into honey. The bees then drop the honey into the beeswax combs, which are hexagonal cells made of wax produced by the bees. This process is repeated until the combs are full. To prepare for long-term storage, the bees fan their wings to evaporate and thicken the honey. When this is done, the bees cap the honeycomb with wax and move on to the next empty comb, starting all over again.
One system of beekeeping, involves the use of top bar hives which are often made of timber and widely used in Zimbabwe. Another way uses frame hives which are more often used on large- scale projects.
When it comes to harvesting honey from your hives it is easy to separate honey from new honeycombs in which the wax is soft and the honey is liquid. Newly made honeycombs are often pure white, while older honeycombs are yellow to yellow-brownish. When you open your hive, you will find capped honeycombs, which are a sign that the honey is ready for harvesting. The comb is simply broken up completely and the honey and beeswax put into a strainer to capture pure honey.
Bees should be handled with considerable care. Smells and odour play a large part in the lives of bees. Their sense of smell enables them to detect and identify sources of food easily. Bees react quickly to body odour and perspiration, which means you must bathe before approaching your colony. Other strong-smelling substances, such as alcohol, cheese, garlic, onions, petrol and diesel should be avoided. Bees are responsive to movement and beehives should be situated away from roads and pathways so that moving vehicles and people do not disturb them. Bees also react to loud bangs and bumps, particularly in their hives, so care must be taken to open hives slowly and gently so as not to alarm or crush them. Beekeepers must train themselves to move slowly when in the vicinity of a hive and when working with bees.
A good beekeeper uses smoke to control bees. Bees assume that the smoke means there is a fire nearby prompting them to start rapidly consuming honey because they think they’ll have to leave their home and find a new place to live. Similar to humans when they have consumed a large meal, bees become calm and lazy after they consume a large amount of honey. This allows the beekeeper to work safely in the hive with the now calm bees.
It is important that the correct material is used to make the smoke used. Good material that is freely available is dry cow dung. The grass-fed manure produces a cool and mild smoke that will not irritate the bees or the beekeepers’ throat. Beehives should be opened early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the bees are actively collecting pollen and nectar. It is important to note that bees should be left alone on windy days and when it is difficult to direct the smoke.
Some experienced beekeepers work on their hives without wearing any protective clothing. But this depends on the skill of the beekeeper. Beginners should be suitably protected at all times so that they aren’t frightened of getting stung. Bees become difficult to control if the beekeeper is frightened. The bee veil is very important to protect the neck, face and head. Beekeeping overalls and gloves are also important to protect the body and hands.
Beekeeping is a very profitable venture. For example, from one hive you can harvest 15kg of honey or more depending on the size of the colony. Beekeepers process the honey and sell it at around $4/kg. From the beeswax you can make candles, hand cream and soap. A healthy colony contains around 60,000 bees. 30,000 bees are inside the colony helping the queen and attending to the brood while the other 30,000 are out collecting nectar and pollen.
Harare News spoke to Charles Chagurika, a beekeeper and trainer with 20 years experience. Chagurika keeps his hives at the Agricultural Research Trust (ART Farm) along Harare Drive. Chagurika says, “The main challenge with bees is that when they get upset they sting. But I would still encourage people to try beekeeping. You will have honey to eat with your family and it can also be a profitable business. Honey has several health benefits and bees pollinate many plants and crops. Importantly, bees are freely available in Zimbabwe.”
This month the National Apiculture Association of Zimbabwe will host a one-day conference with guest speakers invited to speak about the state of bee health in the SADC region. They will also conduct training on the value addition of honey and other hive products. Anyone interested in training in beekeeping can contact the National Apiculture of Zimbabwe at the Ministry of Agriculture or send them an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Harare News journalist Sharon Mazingaizo gets up close and personal with an active hive.