James Muriuki, the Assistant Director in charge of Livestock Production at the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries (MoALF), loves talking about bees.
The man has a passion for beekeeping. It is no shock that he is the Head of Apiculture and Emerging Livestock Department at the ministry.
“The science and art of bee farming is called aApiculture,” he says.
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Muriuki, a man who has seen many moons, says Kenyans have always produced honey.
“Production and utilisation of honey is not a new thing in Kenya. In some cultures, honey was an important part of nutrition. It was also used as medicine in some instances,” he says.
A lot of the honey harvested in the old times existed in natural ecosystems. Bees formed colonies in caves, tree trunks, rocks, under the ground and other similar crevices.
The earliest attempts on domestication of bees in Kenya employed the use of log hives, bark hives, and pot hives, Muriuki notes.
“Log hives closely mimicked natural habitat for bees,” he says.
In those years, he adds, people took beekeeping ‘for granted’. It was not done commercially.
The situation is different today: commercial beekeeping has gained traction in recent years, Muriuki says. “A lot of interest is being witnessed from all over.”
According to him, traditional beekeeping (the use of log hives) is giving way to modern (improved) beekeeping.
The log hive gave birth to the Kenya Top Bar Hive (KTBH) – which was invented by the late Professor Isaac Kigatira.
“He was the pioneer apiculturist as far as improved beekeeping in Kenya is concerned,” Muriuki says.
While better in terms of honey production compared to the log hive, KTBH did not quite have the qualities necessary for commercial honey production.
Pauline Otila is an entrepreneur per excellence. She is the managing director of Apiculture Ventures Limited: a 360-degree beekeeping company.
She says: “I got interested in beekeeping while working for a beekeeping company here in Kenya.
“I studied commerce and majored in finance in university. But beekeeping won me over – especially after a 3- month training in Israel in 2013,” she says.
Otila calls herself many names: entrepreneur, bee lover, trainer, and most importantly, a beekeeping farmer.
If you want to become a commercial beekeeper, what do you need? we posed the question to Otila.
“The first thing you need is knowledge: do you have knowledge on beekeeping?” she said.
Pauline says Kenya is many years behind countries such as Israel in beekeeping.
“Over there, they look at it as a profession. You don’t wake up one day and start beekeeping.
“It is important that you get to know bees. You ought to study how they live and how they make honey. You need to have management skills to manage a beekeeping enterprise – if your interest is really to make money,” she says.
According to Pauline, without critical knowledge on beekeeping, chances of success at commercial beekeeping are low.
“Get a short beekeeping course and do it. You will learn critical skills that make the difference when it comes to the actual making of money in beekeeping.”
Armed with proper knowledge, one needs the right supplies or tools, she says. They include bee suit, gloves, smokers, boots, a habitat (land), and most critically, hives.
A hive, says Muriuki, is bees dwelling place. A good hive contributes towards higher production of honey. And the country is in need of good quality honey.
Kenya’s potential of honey production, Muriuki says, is 100,000 metric tonnes.
“We are currently producing 25,000 metric tonnes. Demand for honey in Kenya ranges between 35,000 to 40,000 metric tonnes.
“The export market is also vast. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data I have, from 2016, shows that we exported 15.8 metric tonnes and imported 107 metric tonnes in that year.
“We are forced to import because we can’t meet demand. Our largest supplier of foreign honey is Tanzania,” Muriuki says.
Majority of Kenyan beekeepers are small holder farmers: they mostly use log hives and KTBH. Even so, he is optimistic that Kenya’s beekeeping industry is coming of age.
“The best hive for production of honey is the Langstroth hive,” he says. Otila shares this sentiment as well.
“As Agriculture ministry, we are reluctant to recommend hives. However, the hive best suited for modern and improved beekeeping – especially in a commercial setup – is the Langstroth hive.
According to invent.org, the Langstroth hive is named after Lorenzo Langstroth, who invented it in 1851 with the aim of enabling greater production of honey.
His recognition of “bee space”—the idea that bees will not obstruct passages approximately their size, about one-fourth inch—led him to invent the hive.
A Langstroth hive contains frames carefully spaced in a box. The frames can be removed and inspected. The hive allows the beekeeper to inspect bee colony.
“Commercial beekeeping requires that a beekeeper inspects hives every fortnight. The Langstroth made it easy to inspect hives for disease, monitor the health of colonies, and harvest honey – when it is ready.
“Remember the bees are making the honey for themselves: not for us. And once they have made the honey they will eat it up. When you go back you will find empty combs,” Otila says.
The hive also produces more honey compared to older, rudimentary, hives.
“Traditional log hives have no standards. They have no specific dimensions. Even so, log hives report on average10-15 kilogrammes of honey per year per hive. KTBH produces 20-30 kilogrammes per year. While the Langstroth can record anything between 30 and 60 kilogrammes per year. The design also allows one to harvest more times. Extraction of honey does not lead to destruction of the comb," Muriuki says.
“After honey extraction, the combs remain intact for bees to fill old combs with new honey – cutting time for honey production in subsequent seasons. Depending on availability of forage, one can harvest 3 to 5 times in a year from a Langstroth hive.”
The hive also yields cleaner honey, says Otila.
“The hive has two main compartments: brood chamber and honey chamber. And the frames have wires that structure combs uniformly. At harvest, with the Langstroth, you use an extractor which spins frames to eject honey and leave frames intact.
“With log hive and KTBH, the combs themselves are crushed leaving honey cloudy with higher wax concentrations. KTBH produces more wax than honey,” she says.
Otila’s company is involved in the beekeeping value chain from top to bottom.
“We make hives (both Langstroth and KTBH), we produce honey and other by products such as wax, we process honey and wax into various products and sell,” she says.
Currently, the Langstroth hive costs between Sh4,500 and Sh6,000.
Most Langstroth hives measure 19 inches in length and 16 inches in width. The depth of the hive can vary from shallow (5⅞ inches) to medium (6 5⁄8 inches) and deep (9 5⁄8 inches). The hive can be 8-framed or 10-framed.