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Bees: Providing Nutrition, Generating Income and Conserving Biodiversity

In nearly all countries of the world, bees and their products are not only common and have wide consumer demands, but such activities provide sustainable livelihoods to many small-scale farmers and other business people.

Beekeeping (apiculture) is the practice of managing honey-bee colonies to collect honey for consumption, marketing, pollinating crops, and getting advantage of other products that the hive produces such as the beeswax, propolis, pollen, and royal jelly or even producing bees for sale to other beekeepers, says Mr. Zaid Tekle, an expert and manager of Bee and poultry reproduction in the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). In Eritrea, there are thousands of subsistence and commercial beekeepers.


As in many other countries in the world where honey bees naturally occur, Eritrean communities have had a long history of harvesting honey from the wild or in traditionally managed colonies. During the Feudal era, local lords used honey as a tax. Italians also engaged in honeybee production activities. But in a more integrated, commercial wax bee farming started after independence. After the 1998 initiative, a sound and practical study started in the areas where bee reproduction is suitable to practice. Farmers began to be introduced to modern and economically efficient bee farming. The MoA launched a campaign to augment honey production in the country by supporting farmers with the necessary equipment for beekeeping start-up. The objective was for every family to have its own bee colony to produce for its own consumption and the market. During the initial period, the project went through several setbacks. But after the year 2000 specialists in bee farming began to get training and the sector experienced a significant leap forward. As the honey reproduction centers of the MoA has been giving trainings and extension services to several farmers, the number of beekeepers has been increasing. As a result, commercial beekeeping in Eritrea has been improving in quality and increasing in quantity in nearly the last two decades.

The Ministry of Agriculture encourages bee farming especially because hives can be placed anywhere convenient and it do not use up land that can be used for cultivation. Bees collect nectar and pollen wherever they can find it, including wastelands.

“The main mission of bees in our planet is not merely honey production but has to do with cross pollination and conserving nature” says Mr. Zaid. Nectar and pollen are not used by other livestock: only bees use these resources. Therefore bees can freely use the nutrients of the plants. Pollination of plants increases their seed production and, thus, contributes to their maintenance, increase in agricultural production, conservation of natural biodiversity and its sustainability. Their role is not readily recognized, even though bees are needed for the pollination of many crops and for maintaining biodiversity. Usually a honeybee can visit between 50 to 1000 flowers in one trip, which takes between 30 minutes to 4 hours. A colony with 25,000 forager bees, each making 10 trips a day, is able to pollinate 250 million flowers. Without bees, all valuable agricultural resources could not be harvested.

According to Mr. Zaid, there are over 20,000 species of bees in the world, all of which belong to the super-family Apoidea. Most of them lead solitary lives. A few species, however, are social, leading a community life in a colony. The most common “domesticated” honey bees are not more than four to five sub-species known for producing honey, making it worthwhile to keep them. Apis is, furthermore, the only genus in the Apinae subfamily among whose species Apis mellifera is of greatest economic importance that is common in Eritrea. These species are commonly known around the world and most studies are made on them. These include Apis mellifera, A. m. scutellata, A. mellifera yementica, A. serrna, A. dorssata, flore. These sub families have been found to have specific behavioral and morphological characteristics, and their variation has some implications for bee-keeping practice. The MoA regularly conducts researche and surveys on the best type of species suitable to Eritrea and introduces them to the farmers.

According to Mr. Zaid Apis mellifera is one of the honey producing bees and has been introduced in most regions of the world. This species has African origin. Another species which has economic value in Eritrea is Apis serana. Apis serana migrated from the Middle East and can also be found around Europe. It is confined in this places. Apis dorsata is another bee species that is found in southern Asia. This species is much harder to keep in one place, but farmers collect the produce areas where the colony is found. The fourth species is known by the name flore. Flore is found in Afghanistan and Iran but has migrated to our country in the last three years. Similarly, this species is also difficult to keep in hives. It lives in trees and caves.

There are also stingless bees in our country. Bee species known by the local name “Teqeray” is one of them. A. mellifera yementica species lives in the eastern lowlands of Eritrea all the way up to Yemen but A. m. scutellata is mostly found in the highlands. In Eritrea the most commonly reared bee species are known by the local names “Teqeray” and “Tsgenay” which represent Apis mellifera mentcosa and A. m. yemenitica sub-species of honeybee. Regarding their behavior and morphological characteristics, Mr. Zaid says, “the former make home in the ground and big tree holes. In spite of limited research, the honey harvested from this species is very low compared to the latter. From one colony of this species a quarter of a kilo honey can be harvested”. For this reason Eritrean farmers do not prefer to keep the Apis mellifera mentcosa. The traditional and most commonly kept bee species in the highlands is A. mellifera from which most of the honey we get comes.

Eritrea is one of the largest honey producing countries in Africa and has favorable climate for bee farming. The southern region is the most endowed in agro-ecology for bee farming in Eritrea. A study conducted by the Ministry found that the vicinities of Tsaeda-Qelay, Endagergsh, May-alba, Tserona, Hazemo, Deqi-lefay, Hademti, Mayaini, Qelay-beatit, Segheneiti, Ala, Adi-felesti, and Areza in the southern region are conducive for bee farming. However, deforestation and chemical use in agricultural fields remains a concern. This can damage honey production at national level. Trees make good places for bees to live and give wild bees nesting places, plenty of food to eat and shade. Therefore, preserving existing forest areas and enriching the environment with a variety of wild vegetation is of paramount importance in enhancing the sector.

In total, around 16 thousand traditional and 7 thousand registered bee-colonies in modern hives exist in the country. There are also estimated thousands of unregistered hives throughout the rural area. An increasing number of beekeepers associations are supplying their products to the market. An organized way of doing the activity is enabling the farmers to command market prices, share experiences and provide quality products. Mr. Zaid says that the Ministry regularly conducts research on the behaviors and adaptability of certain kinds of species with the aim of enhancing honey production both in quality and quantity which can be helpful economically to farmers. Based on the research conducted, the Ministry gives training to farmers on management and colony splitting, proper hive making and seasonal bee colony management practices. The adoption rate of modern beekeeping has been improved substantially after skill development training took place and appropriate beehives were produced.

Honey has been valued highly as a sweetener since early times in human history. The content and color of honey is influenced by the kind of forage the bees extract. This product can be consumed as it is as table honey, and also as an ingredient for making candies from wax, conserved fruits, juices, cakes and cooked foods. It has a long history of a very wide range of use. In our communities a respected guest is provided with honey and “Kicha”, a traditional staple. It is also used to make beverages like Brzi, a drink made up of Siwa and honey. But this is used in holidays and special occasions, mostly in the rural area.

Honey, like other bee products, has a tasty and nutritional value and contributes to the overall health of farm families. In many societies bee products are used in traditional medicine and are an integral part of traditional health care. Bee products provide improved nutrition, and consequently, better health for farm families and others in local communities. Honey is a useful source of high-carbohydrate, and contains a rich diversity of minerals, vitamins and others, adding nutritional variety to human diets (FAO, 2009). Honey provides improved physical performance, resistance to fatigue and improved  mental efficiency (FAO, 2006). Honey also is said to improve food assimilation (FAO, 2006). It is commonly indicated as a ‘lifesaver’ for people in critical health (CTA, 2005). Similar to Eritrea, bee brood and adult bees are consumed in many countries and in some are considered a treat. Brood and adult bees contain reasonable amounts of protein (FAO, 2006).

Many bee products have a good value in local markets and are easily tradable. Honey, for example, requires few inputs and has a good cash value related to bulk and weight. Honey is also easy to transport to distant markets. If appropriately extracted and processed, it can become a nonperishable providing sales of the product well beyond the main harvest times. This can provide a more constant and regular income for the farm families. Beekeeping is a fairly easy activity to start and this can benefit the disadvantaged sections of a society, for example, females and people with disabilities. Furthermore, traders and others benefit from a strong beekeeping industry. Other local traders benefit by making hives and other equipment, and from using and selling the products. Thus, it creates employment and mitigates poverty level.

In Eritrea, in many rural areas, various forms of beekeeping have been in practice for many years. One of the future aims of the Ministry of Agriculture is to improve honey production by forming associations, conducting research and giving training to farmers. By introducing beekeeping as a business and building on pre-existent skills it will improve the knowledge and capacity of small-scale farmers. This will enhance local traditions in beekeeping while developing such an enterprise for the benefit of many in the local community. This is not meant to deviate from the use of acquired techniques and equipment in the locality, but enhance and improve them.

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