It is well publicised that the native British honeybee is under threat. However, increased awareness and interest in multiplying their numbers is growing. Membership of beekeeping associations has recently shot up: The British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA) has seen its membership rise by 3,000 to 14,500 in the last 8 months. It appears many socially conscious people are eager to do more to support the balance of nature. Thus beekeeping is now becoming an increasingly desirable hobby.
But while the British strive to stave off the plight of the hardworking honey producer, communities in less-industrialised nations are farming them to guarantee sustainability, boost the economy and provide solid foundations for education. In Malawi, situated at the southern end of Africa's Great Rift Valley, a project is underway to achieve these ends.
Malawi ranks among the world's least developed countries. The UN Human Development Index grades it as the 6th poorest country in the world. Fifty-four per cent of the 12 million people in Malawi live below the poverty line, and their fragile environment is seriously at risk of degradation as a result of population pressure and poor farming methods. Educational attainment is low and economic prospects are poor.
Pam Gregory, a professional beekeeper and development expert, is leading an initiative to support the locals of the Nkhata Bay area to take control of the means to improve their lives. The SBDARA/NHPC (Small Beekeepers Development and Research Association/ Nkhata-bay Honey Producers Co-operative) Beekeeping Project is encouraging villagers to develop their farming skills. In turn people are strengthening both their income and their domestic security.
'Many people in Malawi are already excellent beekeepers,' Pam said.
'Bee farming improves general food security within an area by encouraging the care of pollinating insects to improve the seed set and quality of crops.
'Beekeeping and related activities can also offer women a viable means to generate significant cash income.'
Beekeeping for the future
In Northern Malawi, the natural Miombo woodland produces a high calorie, light coloured honey which is used at home or sold on the market. Beeswax and propolis, secondary hive products, generate extra income, providing the opportunity to develop locally made, efficient medicines. However, from the beginning, there have been obstacles to developing the project.
'The distance from the urban markets and lack of transport made it hard for the beekeepers to sell their honey for a good price - crazy in a place where people are often hungry,' says Pam.
Another problem was that people were trading from a position of weakness in a buyer's market. 'Sometimes unscrupulous traders cheated the beekeepers, taking the honey never to return, so beekeepers lost both their crop and their precious storage containers.'
And so Bees Abroad, the UK beekeeping charity which Pam represents, initiated a co-operative marketing organisation that provides a legitimately honest outlet for farmers to sell produce. The charity injected cash to enable honey to be purchased for immediate cash, to pay for storage and containers, and to pay wages and overheads.
A vehicle-hiring scheme introduced personally by Pam allows honey to be delivered for sale in more distant, urban markets. A centre for beekeeping excellence and village based services where experienced local people can train and advise others in sustainable and profitable bee farming has been built. A village centred programme of training with seven local teachers has been established and now villagers have their skills assessed by the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) using their special scheme for helping African beekeepers to gain formal qualifications.
Bees Abroad support many other projects throughout Africa and the rest of the world. Using indigenous bees and techniques appropriate for each location, it offers training and support including making hives and protective clothing from local materials. Encouraging home based production, the charity ensures the generation of income by rural communities in developing countries. After five years, Bees Abroad projects are usually self sustaining. Among other places they have projects which need funding in Nepal, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Romania and Sudan.
Currently Pam is looking for funding to send Lenson Simumba, the young man who runs the project in Malawi to finish his business management studies.
'He had a sponsor to start and has taken a diploma successfully but wants to progress to a degree.
'I need to raise £5,000 over the next three years for him to do this but the project would benefit from this input enormously.'
For more information about Bees Abroad go to www.beesabroad.org.
Jamie Skey is a freelance journalist
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