Untapped Potential: How to start your own beekeeping (apiculture) and honey farming business in Kenya
Beekeeping is ideal for small-scale and resource-poor farmers owing to the fact that it is completely sustainable, generates lots of income and requires less inputs — land, labour and capital.
However, traditional beekeeping in Kenya has not been much to write home about because of the low volumes of honey produced and income generated.
This is largely due to beekeepers’ ignorance, poor harvesting techniques and use of ‘old school’ type hives.
Lack of knowledge and outlets that buy honey exposes beekeepers to exploitation by unscrupulous middlemen and many end up selling their harvest to producers of local liquor for a song.
What are bees and why are they so important?
Bees are flying insects popular for their role in the production of honey. However, not all bees produce honey, honey is just one of many lucrative products made by bees.
Bee products are used in various foods and also enjoy extensive use in several industries including medicine, food processing, industrial manufacturing and natural healing.
Honey bees are social by nature and often live together in large, very organized and sophisticated communities known as ‘colonies’.
A colony of honey bees may have up to 100,000 bees that are divided into three main groups (known as ‘castes’).
The ‘queen bee’ lays all the eggs (which ensures the continued existence of the colony), the ‘workers’ do all the work (cleaning, finding food etc.) while the drones are fertile males who mate with the queen.
So, back to why bees are important to us.
Bees are naturally attracted to flowers because of a sweet substance (called ‘nectar’) that they like to feed on, and as a result, produce honey and several other products from nectar.
In addition to honey, bees are EXTREMELY important in the pollination of plants. This simply means that without bees, most plants would hardly be able to produce any fruits.
For thousands of years, honey, beeswax and other bee products were harvested from bees living in the wild using very crude and unsustainable techniques.
However, beekeeping (or apiculture) has become a popular modern practice for commercial farmers and hobbyists who manage bee colonies in order to harvest their honey and other products.
Bees in Kenya belong to the species Apis mellifera. Within this species, are a number of races distributed globally and four of them are found in Kenya.
Apis mellifera scutellata — A small and highly aggressive bee with a great tendency to reproduce (swarm) and abscond (migrate). Found in the plains and lowlands areas such as Baringo.
Apis mellifera monticola — A large, dark and gentle race (though less productive) with a tendency to reduce brood rearing at the first sign of forage decline and may not migrate. It is found in highland like Meru and Mt Elgon.
Apis mellifera yemenitica (formally, Apis mellifera nubica) — The smallest with most slender abdomen and the largest yellow abdominal colour band of all African races. It withstands and survives drought by excessive migration. Found mostly in the northern parts of Kenya.
Apis mellifera littorea — Inhabits coastal lowlands and has a tendency to rear brood throughout the year without migrating due to availability of forage along the coast.
Bees forage on floral nectar and pollen to produce honey, beeswax, propolis (used in medicines) and other products such as royal jelly, pollen, bee venom and bee brood.
Note that honey is not bee vomit or faecal matter, rather it is nectar processed by addition of enzymes to break down sugars and removal of some moisture to concentrate it (ripen).
Types of Bee Hives Available in Kenya
Traditional Hive: There are several types all made from cheap and locally available materials such as logs, pots and baskets. However, bee management and honey harvesting is difficult in such hives and usually the quality and quantity of honey is compromised.
During harvesting, combs — including brood combs — are cut off, destroying a generation of bees within a hive’s colony. Such colonies end up spending most of their time and energy (honey) rebuilding combs and replacing brood, thus remaining at a redevelopment phase at the expense of honey production.
Kenya Top Bar Hive: This hive resembles a wedge box with wooden bars of specific measurements at the wide top part and a roof above the bars. Bee management is possible with this hive, making it easier to harvest and manipulate colonies for more honey production compared to traditional hives.
However, combs in the top bar hive are not supported and can break if not handled carefully. Since wax is harvested with honey, the bees are forced to build more wax to replace harvested combs, which results in lower honey yields albeit with more harvested wax.
In addition, the volume, like in the traditional hive, is fixed, so the hive can fill and get congested very quickly in the honey flow season. An overcrowded hive can divide and swarm, leading to reduced honey production.
Langstroth Hive (Frame Hive): Box shaped with several compartments and frames that make the combs very strong. A mesh (queen excluder) is placed above the lowermost compartment known as the brood chamber allowing only the worker bees (non-laying) to move through.
Since entry to the hive is located at the base of the brood chamber, the queen cannot lay eggs in the compartments above the brood chamber (known as super chambers) thus combs in these chambers will contain honey only.
The honey is extracted by centrifuge, returning the combs relatively intact to the bees to shorten harvesting intervals and potentially increase yield. Combined with the fact that honey is separated completely from the brood, this extraction method ensures high quality honey.
By adding more supers, additional space can be created in the hive, which is important during honey flow period.
Frame hives are more expensive (between Sh3,500 and Sh8,000) and require a greater level of investment as well as more beekeeping skills.
To begin with, a strong and durable beehive is necessary to house your bees, and keeping them safe from predators and harsh weather. Langstroth Hive, Kenya Top Bar Hive and the traditional log hive are the common beehives around.
The best hive should be easy to maintain, have a simple design of the top covers and supers, have ample space between brood chambers and supers, removable frames for easy hive inspection and a hive stand. For these reasons, the Langstroth hive is the most preferred for commercial purposes.
A pair of gloves is another apparatus you need, preferably one made of leather but very flexible to use. Bee wax is also necessary for the colony to occupy. Look for a smoker that burns for longer periods, preserves fuel and has a nozzle that will perfectly guide the smoke accurately.
An uncapping fork is effective for removing comb caps without damaging the comb. During hive inspection, a bee brush with soft thistles is of great help to clear bees from the comb without making them aggressive.
Of great importance too is the hive tool to aid you move frames and clean propolis. A bee suit is also a must-have. This should include the head veil to offer you maximum protection from bee stings. Be careful when putting on the bee suit.
It should always be worn over or on top of a pair of gumboots; if you tuck in the suit into your gumboots, bees will sting you. When you harvest honey, you will need a clean honey extractor and a sieve.
Once you have all those gadgets, you need to set up your apiary. Look for a place that is less disturbed, far from noise or human activities. This place should be well-drained lest the bees abscond due to high humidity. Avoid fields frequently sprayed with chemical pesticides to reduce bee poisoning and honey contamination; thus, if a must, use bee friendly pesticides.
The apiary should also be close to water and nectar sources. Set the hives under trees or away from direct sunlight, flooded places or areas with strong winds. If your site is exposed, erect a small shade above the hives. Leave enough space – 1.2-1.5m – to give you a working area. Where space is limited, pair up the hives.
Place all the hives at a height that you will find comfortable to work. If placed on wooden stands or wire suspensions, paint the stands and wires using used oil to drive away crawling ants. If resources allow, fence your apiary to protect it from vandals and predators like honey badgers, humans and monkeys.
Best plants for bees
The nearby plants should be producing high quality nectar. Bees love wild flowers, berries, flowering herbs and a variety of flowering fruits and vegetables. You can plant agricultural crops yielding abundant nectar such as sunflower, coffee, legumes, trees, bananas, lavender, strawberries, cucumbers, tomato, squash, pumpkins, watermelons, flowering broccoli, tulips and clovers.
Fruit trees also make perfect forage materials, with trees such as acacia producing good nectar for sweet honey.
Some institutions sell stingless bees, which you can go for. Some hives, however, get stocked readily with the African bees that forage around and then they make their queen bee. To stock the hives easily, spray it with sugar syrup or hang sugar syrups around. Also, smear with melted bees wax or site the hives where bees have lived before. A catcher box can also be used to trap bees and transport them to the new hive.
Once the bees are in the hive, they can forage from the nearby plants. During dry seasons, however, supplement the bees with food. This is very important to avoid absconding; a case where bees leave the hive completely, not considering your heavy investment.
Absconding is caused by several factors that include lack of food and water. Offer the bees sugar syrup or provide little honey and water during drought. Frequent attacks by pests are also dangerous to a colony. Careless handling also frustrates bees and may make them abscond.
This include breaking combs, excess hive smoking, banging the hive, clumsiness and roughness. Excess heat in the hive or excess cold also causes absconding. To control these, position hives in a shaded place when hot or in a sunny position with minimal shade.
You will always come in contact with bees during hive inspection or honey harvesting. During these times, wear a full bee suit and avoid woollen clothes that bees stick on. Do not visit the site when smelling alcohol, strong scent perfumes or soaps, which may smell sweet to the bees and make them follow you. Always start with the least aggressive colonies to give you adequate time to handle the pleasant colonies first.
Bees are best handled in the cool evenings. Remain confident and don’t crush the insects. If by mistake they get into you, walk away and remove them plus the stings by scraping off using your nails. Do not squeeze lest the venom spread into your body.
When done with handling, don’t walk home straight, pass through plantations of maize or trees to rub off the bees from you. One bee sting is not dangerous, in most cases it will be beneficial while in a few people it may cause allergy.
Importance of Bee-keeping
- Bee farming is a rewarding and enjoyable occupation which has many benefits to the bee farmers and the returns are high. It has more advantages over other farm enterprises.
- Bee farming requires little land which does not have to be fertile
- Honey is a source of non-perishable food hence last longer
- Capital needed to investment is very low compared to other farm enterprises
- Beekeeping or bee farming is cheap and relatively not competitive to other Agricultural enterprises. It does not compete for scarce resources such as space.
- Labor required in bee farming is very low for activities such as inspections and harvesting.
- Many products can be obtained from bee farming which are great source of income. Examples of these products are honey, beeswax, pollen, bee venom, royal jelly, bee colonies, bee brood, queen bees, and package bees.
- Bee farming encourages environmental conservation since it does cause any pollution and since bees require plant there is a tendency to conserve cutting trees.
- Bees act as good pollinators of plants, trees, fruits and crops, thus playing a big role in bio-diversity and improvement of crop yields in our country.
- most hive products provide remedy for a number of ailments (Apitherapy) and can cure many disease
Challenges Facing Production of Honey in Kenya
- Lack of skills is a major challenge facing this sector. Most farmers in Kenya lack adequate skills on managing bees and handling hive products.
- Also Inadequate training for both farmers and extension staff is also a challenge facing this sector.
- Limited access to appropriate beekeeping equipment is among the challenges facing bee farming in Kenya.
- Another challenge facing this sector is underdeveloped marketing system of hive products both locally and internationally. This can be due to problems of quality and marketing organizations.
- Lack of adequate and intense research on the existing beekeeping technologies, equipment, honey bee and product utilization is also a main challenge facing bee farming in Kenya.
- Low prioritization of beekeeping in relation to other enterprises in the wider Agricultural sector has also been a problem facing this sector because they get less funds from the government
Setting up a colony is just one of the factors involved in the beekeeping business. You will need to develop a business plan to determine several factors including the costs, potential returns, years to profit, and labor needed to run this type of business. Developing a strategic marketing plan for the products you wish to sell and service you will offer is another critical component.