MANGWE farmer, Feli Khumalo, 60, has turned to bee-keeping to help him fend for his family at a time when most communal farmers are reeling under the effects of drought. The little insects have improved his life for the better ever since he decided to venture into the bee-keeping project in 2003.
Khumalo, a small-scale farmer in Sikhulu Village in Izimnyama area, has no regrets about turning his field into a bee keeping area. Today, bee-keeping has become his primary source of livelihood after receiving appropriate training in Harare.
He has recorded maximum production from the not-so-unique business venture in the past 12 years.
“I received my training on bee keeping in 2003 at a training workshop in Harare. I had, however, already started way before the training. But without proper training it’s a bit challenging. The phase was a learning process for me. After getting the training I ventured into bee keeping big time, turning it into a source of livelihood.
“I’ve been able to sustain my family using the proceeds that I make from selling the honey which I collect from my bee keeping activities,” said Khumalo.
He usually mounts 10-15 boxes around his fields which bees occupy and colonise. Each box produces about two buckets of unprocessed honey which produce 15 litres after processing.
Khumalo normally harvests his honey twice a year, in February and June. He collects his produce which he packs raw in 20-litre buckets. Khumalo sells his honey to villagers and each box gives him $150.
His harvest from 10 boxes realises an income of $1, 500.
“Bee-keeping has become a reliable source of income for me. I package my honey in 500 grammes bottles which I sell for $5 each. If my produce is good each box can give me 30 by 500 grammes of bottles.
“The highest number of boxes that I’ve managed to harvest for the past 12 years so far has been 15. At the moment I sell my produce to locals who are very supportive of my business,” he said.
Khumalo also produces wax for candles which he sells to villagers. He also sells bee hive boxes to other villagers which he makes using the skills he learnt in training.
Khumalo is now the local trainer for aspiring bee-keepers, as he facilitates workshops for bee-keepers within the community and neighbouring villages.
People who venture into bee-keeping without proper training are not able to maintain the bees up to harvest time he says.
“I constantly monitor my bee hives to ensure that the honey production stage isn’t compromised or disturbed. The production process could be easily disturbed by foreign insects or pests like ants, termites, spiders and bee pirates that could take over the bee hive thereby chasing away the bees,” he says.
Khumalo uses cost-effective methods to eliminate the parasites and avoid them taking over the beehives. He spreads ashes beneath and around the boxes in order to stop termites and ants from creeping inside. Bees do not occupy a box that has been invaded by other insects.
It takes about four months from the time the bees occupy the boxes to harvest honey. Khumalo wears a protective suit when harvesting the honey combs from the boxes which he then drains to extract the honey.
His field, which is located next to his homestead, is well vegetated with trees which makes it an ideal bee keeping area. Bee-keeping does not, however, thrive during the dry season as the production levels and quality of the honey drops.
Khumalo says his bee keeping project has potential to produce a variety of goods but was being hampered by limited resources and equipment.
“I can be able to scale up production after acquiring the appropriate machinery,” he says. Bees, in their nature, have always divided human opinion since time immemorial. They produce honey and sting people in equal measure.
Khumalo’s neighbours had their reservations when he first ventured into the bee-keeping project more than a decade ago. They feared the little insects would attack them and their livestock.
Khumalo says his family or neighbours have never been attacked by the bees so far.
“There are particular sizes for the boxes I use to accommodate my bees and I place them strategically where there is no human traffic. In my case I use my fields. Before I set my boxes I apply propolis in them which is a chemical that attracts bees.
“I then place my boxes in their specific positions and monitor them. I particularly place my boxes about 50 to 100 metres apart. At times it can take a while for the bees to occupy the boxes. The bees in each box make a colony,” he said.
Khumalo still engages in crop and livestock farming just like the majority of his fellow villagers. Bulilima District Forestry Extension Officer, Fortunes Matutu, said bee keeping was a strategic way of farming. He said rural people could sustain their families but many were still shunning it.
Villagers in some parts of Matabeleland South still viewed bees as deadly insects which should not be accommodated close to homesteads. He urged aspiring bee keepers to receive training before engaging in the project as it could be detrimental if poorly administered.
“Bee keeping requires the farmer to purchase proper bee hives. The hives aren’t mere boxes but there are particular dimensions of the boxes. The most common are the Kenyan top bar and langstroth bee hives.
“A number of villagers can’t afford to buy these bee hives and they prefer to have them made out by carpenters. The carpenters should have a knowhow of making the proper bee hives,” said Matutu.
He said bee-keeping demanded patience as a number of people were giving up early. One should wait for up to six months for bees to accumulate in the box.
It is important for bee keepers to cite their apiary (area of mounting the bee hives) properly. The location has to be in a conducive environment for the bees to produce.
“Bees are very sensitive to weather conditions and strong chemicals. They don’t accumulate under harsh weather conditions which could include extreme heat or extreme cold. Human disturbances such as noise or movement of people chase the bees away. These are some of the important aspects that farmers learn during training for them to strive in bee keeping,” said Matutu.
Matutu said bee-keeping is an equally good form of farming which is not labour intensive and is cost effective. He said bee farmers only incurred high costs at the start of the project when they had to buy equipment such as smokers, bee-hives and protective suits.
The resources could, however, be used throughout the process of running the project. Matutu said honey had a good market as it was used in making a number of products such as syrups, polish, soaps and wax for making candles.
He said the bee farmers in Bulilima District did not have appropriate machinery which forced them to produce at a small scale with most focusing only on selling honey.
Matutu said bee-keeping was also an incentive for villagers to preserve the natural forests within their areas. He said the apiary which farmers selected had to have trees to provide shade to the bee hives, trees to provide pollen and nectar.
“Bee-keeping can only be successful in a well vegetated woodland area. It’s unlike crop farming where villagers preferred to clear their entire fields,” he said.
Matutu said the bee act was an instrument which was crafted to guard activities of bee farmer’s to ensure their practices were not detrimental to community members.
The act which was formulated in 1974 seeks to provide for the control of disease in bees and the conservation of bees found in the wild and to regulate bee-keeping.
The act states that a bee-keeper has to notify community members located within a radius of five kilometres of their apiary of their bee keeping activities before hand.