Beekeeping: Indigenous Knowledge Lost and Found

Posted: February 8, 2011

By Elliud Muli and Maryann Frazier -- Beekeeping has been an important cultural and economic activity in Sub-Saharan Africa since time immemorial.

Traditional beekeeping is one of the oldest practices carried out by tribes in Kenya such as the Kamba, Maasai, Samburu, Dorobo, Tugen, and Mbeere. Among all of these tribes, beekeeping was strictly a man’s business and only boys received training through apprenticeships. Log hives were typically used, though honey hunting was also practiced to a small extent. Honey has played, and continues to play, an important role in nutrition and medicine: it is used for treating coughs, wound healing, and as an ingredient in many herbal remedies. In most tribes, honey is a crucial component of the bride price and cannot be substituted with cash – it must be honey! Among the Kamba people, honey is also used to treat hoof and mouth disease in cows. It is also given to women after birth to reduce her infant’s colic pains. While wax is discarded, bee brood (eggs, larvae, and pupa) is believed to improve sex drive (libido) in men. Kamba beekeepers consume it so as to “build their homes.” Knowledge of keeping bees has been passed on from generation to generation, with some family lineages named after their beekeeping practices.
The bees and hives
If you ask most Kenyan beekeepers what they know about honey bee biology they will most likely say “nothing.” Yet they can tell you that there is a “big bee” that lays eggs and perpetuates colony survival. They know that the white, c-shaped larvae are the “baby bees.” They are not concerned when colonies leave their hives (abscond) because they understand the seasonal rhythms of bees and know they will return. And when they do return, these beekeepers know how to entice the bees to nest in the hives they have prepared for them.
For nearly all East African beekeepers, swarms (divisions from existing colonies) are the sole source of bees. Beekeepers know the specific time of year when colonies naturally divide, so they place empty hives in nearby trees to attract and catch these new colonies. Traditional hives are generally made from mature, hardwood trees and are known to withstand hot tropical temperatures and rains for twenty years or more. The log is hollowed out and made a “good” thickness to insulate the nest during the hot dry season.
Hives are baited to attract the swarms. The most common bait is propolis resin, especially from native stingless bees. The propolis is warmed to melt and then smeared on the inner side of the hives and lids. Usually this is done by making a ball with the propolis which is attached to the end of a stick long enough to reach the entire length of the hive. Alternatively, old combs are melted and using scented twigs (e.g., Ocimum sp.), the hot beeswax is sprayed inside the hive leaving a smell of beeswax and Ocimum. Ocimene, a plant volatile found in many species including the genus Ocimmum, was recently (2010) describes as an important brood pheromone in honey bees! In Uganda, baiting is done by smoking or rubbing hives with lemongrass leaves. Among the Samburu people in Kenya, animal fat is rubbed on the insides of hives to attract bees.
Nectar and pollen resources
Honey bees cannot survive or make honey without access to abundant sources of nectar and pollen. Successful beekeepers know the important bee plants in their area and understand that bees need access to these food sources, as well as water and shade. For this reason, hives are located in, or close to, nectar plants, preferably near streams or rivers, and hung in trees for shade. Beekeepers also know that low altitude vegetation blooms at different times of the year (September – October) compared to vegetation at higher altitudes (February – April). To take advantage of this phenomena and increase their honey yields, beekeepers site hives in both areas. If the hives are not located near rivers or stream, many beekeepers provide their bees with water during the dry season. Water is usually put in containers which are hung in trees near the hives, with pieces of wood or grass added to reduce drowning of bees.
A sweet reward
When the bees begin to hang on the outside of the hives or exit at both ends (of traditional log hives) it is a sign that colonies have stored adequate amounts of honey and it is time to harvest. A traditional smoker made of sticks is used to produce smoke. Among the Kamba people, Acacia seyal (local name Kinyua) and Acacia mellifera (common name, Muthiia) is preferred since this wood lights for long periods and produces adequate smoke. In addition to producing smoke, the “smoker” also provides light. Since traditional beekeepers lack protective clothing, honey harvesting is done at night. In some instances, beekeepers prefer to harvest completely naked, since bees caught in the folds of clothing are more likely to sting. A long knife is used during harvesting for two purposes. First, to cut comb in the entire length of the log hive and, second, to kill snakes co-habiting with the bees. (This is critical indigenous knowledge since there are so many poisonous snakes in East Africa.)
Honey, when harvested ripe (capped) is a stable product that requires little processing. But due to its hygroscopic nature it can absorb moisture from the air and ferment. Beekeepers recognize that ripe honey spoils if stored in lidless containers. For this reason, honey harvesting and storage containers are usually made of skin and have tight-fitting lids. Experienced beekeepers do not harvest brood combs and unripe honey (uncapped with a high moisture content) is believed to make ripe honey “light” and spoil its quality; therefore, experienced beekeepers do not mix ripe (capped) and unripe honeys during harvesting.
The loss of indigenous knowledge
Interestingly, there is a significant difference in indigenous knowledge among beekeepers today. A variety of factors have contributed to this but through our interviews with beekeepers from the Aberdares to the coast we learned that the grandfathers of some individuals were traditional beekeepers but their fathers were not. It turns out that the acceptance of Christianity had an impact on the loss of beekeepers and beekeeping in some areas. The customs of brewing beer from honey and using honey to pay a bride price were deemed unacceptable by Christian missionaries. For this reasons, some Kenyans who accepted Christianity gave up beekeeping. Regardless of the reasons, organizations like the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), and their partners (like PSU) can play an important role by helping beekeepers across East Africa bridge this gap in indigenous knowledge and, at the same time, improve their management techniques through an increased understanding of honey bee biology.
Dr. Elliud Muli is the beekeeping specialist at the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) and a faculty member at South Eastern University College in Kitui, Kenya.
Maryann Frazier is a senior extension associate at Penn State, specializing in honey bees and beekeeping.  She can be contacted at