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Bees: Providing Nutrition, Generating Income and Conserving Biodiversity

Habtom Tesfamichael

In nearly all countries of the world, bees and their products are common and provide sustainable livelihoods to many small-scale and commercial bee-keepers and business people.

Beekeeping (apiculture) is the practice of managing honey-bee colonies to collect honey for own consumption and marketing, to pollinate crops, and to collect other products produced in the hives, including beeswax, propolis, pollen, and royal jelly, Mr. Zaid Tekle, chief expert of Bee keeping at the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), said. In Eritrea, there are thousands of subsistence and commercial beekeepers.

Like other communities all over the world, Eritrean communities have had a long history of harvesting honey from the wild or in traditionally managed colonies. Honey was so dear that during the Feudal era tax was paid to the landlords in the form of honey.

In Eritrea, commercial wax bee farming started in a more integrated fashion after the country’s independence. After the 1998 initiative, a sound and practical study started to be done in areas where bee reproduction is suitable to practice. Farmers began to be introduced to modern and economically efficient bee-keeping methods.

The MoA launched a campaign to augment honey production in the country by assisting farmers with equipment for beekeeping start-ups. The objective was for every family to have its own bee colony to produce for its own consumption and sell the surplus at the market. During the initial stage, the project encountered several setbacks.

After the year 2000, specialists in bee farming began to get training and the sector experienced a significant leap forward. Following the training and extension services given to several farmers by the bee reproduction centers of the MoA in different parts of Eritrea, the number of beekeepers has been increasing. In the last two decades, commercial beekeeping in Eritrea has been improving in terms of both quality and quantity. According to the MoA, around eight tons of honey is harvested annually in Eritrea.

The MoA encourages bee farming especially because hives can be placed anywhere without compromising land that can be used for cultivation. Bees collect nectar and pollen wherever they can find it, including wastelands.

“The purpose of bees in our planet is not merely honey production but has to do with cross pollination and conserving nature,” Mr. Zaid said. Only bees use nectar and pollen as resources. Pollination of plants increases their seed production and contributes to their maintenance, increases agricultural production, and helps in the conservation of natural biodiversity and its sustainability. Usually a honeybee can visit between 50 to 1000 flowers in one trip, which takes between 30 minutes to four 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 research and surveys on the best type of species suitable to Eritrea and introduces them to farmers.

According to Mr. Zaid, Apis mellifera, one of the honey producing bees, has been introduced in most regions of the world. This species has an African origin. Another species that has economic value in Eritrea is Apis serana. It migrated from the Middle East and can also be found around Europe. This species is confined to these places. Apis dorsata is another bee species that is found in southern Asia. The fourth species is known by its taxonomic name flore. Flore is found in Afghanistan and Iran but has migrated to our country in the last seven years. It lives in trees and caves and is difficult to keep in hives.

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 said that the former makes home in the ground and big tree holes. The honey harvested from this species is said to be very low compared to the latter. From one colony of this species a quarter of a kilo honey can be harvested, which is why 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, which most of the honey in the market comes from.

Eritrea is one of the largest honey producing countries in Africa and has a favorable climate for bee farming. The Southern region has the most suitable agro-ecology for bee farming. A study by the MoA found that the vicinities of Tsaeda- Qelay, Endagergish, May-alba, Tserona, Hazemo, Deqi-lefay, Hademti, Mayaini, Qelay-bealtiet, Segheneiti, Ala, Adi-felesti, and Areza in the Southern region are conducive for bee farming. However, deforestation and the use of chemicals in farms, which can damage honey production at national level, continue to be a concern. Trees make good places for bees to live in and give wild bees nesting places, plenty of food to eat and shade. Therefore, preserving existing forests and enriching the environment with a variety of wild vegetation is of paramount importance in enhancing the sector.

Overall, around 18 thousand traditional and 17 thousand registered bee-colonies in modern frame hives (which had zero start in 1991) exist in the country. There are also an estimated thousands of unregistered hives throughout the rural areas. These honeybee colonies are reared by over 10,285 farmers across the country.

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 said that the MoA regularly conducts research on the behaviors and adaptability of certain kinds of species with a view to enhancing honey production both in quality and quantity, thereby helping farmers be economically stronger. Based on results of its research, the MoA gives training to farmers on management and colony splitting, grafting methods and techniques, 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 made.

The content and color of honey is influenced by the kind of forage the bees extract. Honey can be consumed as it is in the form of table honey and can also be used 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 of Siwa and honey, and mies (mead).

Honey, like other bee products, is tasty, has nutritional value and contributes to the overall health of families. In many societies bee products are used as traditional medicine. Honey is a useful source of high-carbohydrates and contains a rich diversity of minerals, vitamins and others. It improves physical performance, helps develop resistance to fatigue and improves mental efficiency. Bee brood and adult bees, which have a reasonable amount of protein, are consumed in many countries and are considered a treat in some.

Many bee products have good values in local markets and are easily tradable. Honey requires few inputs and has a good cash value relative to its weight. Honey is also easy to transport to distant markets. If appropriately extracted and processed, it can become imperishable, providing sales of the product well beyond the main harvest times. This can provide regular income for farmers.

Beekeeping is a fairly easy activity to start and this can benefit the disadvantaged segments of a society such as women and persons with disabilities. Moreover, traders and others such as beehive makers also benefit from a strong beekeeping industry. Thus, beekeeping has the potential to create employment opportunities and help reduce poverty.

In Eritrea, in many rural areas, various forms of beekeeping have been in practice for many years. One of the future aims of the MoA is to improve honey production by forming associations, conducting research and giving training to farmers. By introducing beekeeping as a business and building on existing skills, the knowledge and capacity of small-scale farmers can improve and their productivity increase.

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