Student Research Spotlight - Alex McMenamin

Posted: March 13, 2015

This is the 2nd of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Which hive is just right?
An Interview with Alex McMenamin by Anna Busch

Imagine losing your source of income, your source of food, and the ability to support your family. This is a harsh reality that many Kenyan beekeepers face with the decline of honeybees. Kenya is a world exporter of honey, which is an important source of nutrition and income for rural families. Alex McMenamin, a master’s student in the Department of Entomology at Penn State, is trying to help by matching beekeepers with the type of hive that can best protect their colonies and their livelihoods.

Let’s meet our three hive contestants. Contestant number one, the western hive, is extremely high maintenance and difficult to manage with its many moveable frames. It’s also expensive. Not only are the materials for a western hive expensive, but the hive also requires special equipment to harvest honey from the frames, which creates additional costs.

The second contestant, the log hive, requires zero attention. On the plus side, it’s basically a hollowed out log, which makes it the cheapest. The down side is that the whole hive is disturbed or even destroyed while harvesting honey.

The third and final contestant is the top bar hive, which has removable wooden bars from which the bees form their honeycomb. This hive design requires moderate maintenance and is affordable in price. Individual bars of honeycomb can be removed from the top bar hive, causing minimal disturbance to the colony. Since there are no frames, the entire comb can be crushed to extract the honey.

McMenamin compared the three “contestants” based on bee colonization rate, colony health, and honey production.

“Cultural management practices and price were also taken into consideration for the final recommendation,” said McMenamin, who noted that he set up empty hives of each type for wild bees to colonize, which is a common practice in Kenya.

It turns out that honey bees have expensive tastes. Although the western hive was colonized the most, it is the priciest and hardest to manage.

“Is the western method really good for Kenya? Probably not,” stated McMenamin.

Although all of the colonies became sickly over time, none of the hive types differed significantly in colony health. As for honey production, the results were not conclusive due to limited quantities of honey overall.

McMenamin’s final recommendation was contestant number three, the top bar hive, with a few modifications.

“Reducing the size of the top bar hive may increase the attractiveness for honeybees,” stated McMenamin.

Not only is the top bar hive affordable, but it also fits in culturally, requiring little maintenance. Although the modified design still needs to be deployed, a smaller-sized top bar hive may be the answer to improve the future of honeybees and beekeepers in Kenya.