The business of keeping bees to save future generations
High rates of decline in honeybee colonies have forced entrepreneurs like Ernest Simeoni to adopt responsible farming methods; keeping the insects, tapping honey while conserving nature
By Ben oduor
They are small flying insects, with short thick bodies covered with hair, segmented into three and attached to six legs. As they swam, their buzzing sound makes people scamper for safety, as some can badly sting and render animals motionless.
But beneath this ‘buzzing fright’, lies essential contribution to the ecosystem- pollination. According to the website sos-bees.org, published by Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization, a third of the food we consume depends on pollination from bees and other pollinating insects.
In Europe alone, the growth of over 4,000 vegetables depend on the work of the pollinators, who play the crucial role of transferring pollen from the male flowers to the female, enabling flower-producing plants to reproduce thus improving fruit yield by almost 70 percent.
This significant role translates into almost $200billion (Ksh20.2trillion) in global agricultural revenue annually, according to Canadian YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE.
Unfortunately, since the late 1990s, Greenpeace reveals, beekeepers around the world have observed the mysterious and sudden disappearance of bees, and report unusually high rate of decline in honeybee colonies.
So far, 40 percent loss of commercial honeybee has been reported in the US since 2006, 25 percent in Europe since 1985 and 45 percent in the UK since 2010. With the rapid decline, experts now warn that there could be devastating effects on food production.
“Who would pollinate all the crops? Hand pollination is extremely labour-intensive, slow and expensive. The economic value of bees’ pollination work has been estimated around €265bilion annually, worldwide. So, also from a purely economic point of view, it pays to protect bees,” Greenpeace reports in a statement.
According to the NGO, the ever increasing use of chemicals and insecticides on crops, large scale monoculture and dependence on few multinational agri-companies are largely to blame for the rapid decline in honeybees.
It’s against this backdrop that the Organization has filed a petition on its website inviting people of goodwill across the globe to help them save the bees. Slightly more than half a million people have so far signed.
The move coincides with efforts by the United Nations General Assembly, which in 2017 dedicated May 20th as the World Bee Day, specifically to acknowledge the role of bees and other pollinators in the ecosystem.
Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has also advocated for protection of the remaining bee species (estimated at around 20,000 globally), sharing facts about the importance of the insects in a brief titled; Why Bees Matter.
Ernest Simeoni’s beekeeping venture
In Kenya, entrepreneur Ernest Simeoni has rolled up his sleeves, keeping the honeybee not just for the sweet fluid, but also for nature conservation. His passion for beekeeping dates back more than 20 years ago, when he and his business partner ran a beekeeping business in rural Kenya.
The duo would later part ways, allowing Simeoni to start African Beekeepers Limited (ABL) in 2000. According to the entrepreneur, his main intention for the business was to export honey to Japan. Unfortunately, he says, he never managed to export the honey as he realized that such markets demand quality honey in large volumes.
“After consulting several people, I found out that the problem with the Kenyan honey was that production was done in very rudimental way, which ultimately affected quality of the product.Honey was collected in very traditional way, a method relative to honey gathering,” Simeoni says.
“This is why even today, most of the honey found in this market is that which is traded by traders who get it from traditional beehives. So when it comes to actual beekeeping, this is a very new activity in this country.”
The journey, he says, has been very complicated. The business had to start from scratch. First, the firm had to develop a system of keeping the African bee; by bringing in a new beehive technology specifically tailored to the local specie- the Langstroth hive.
“We developed this kind of hive, which is a framed hive, to suit the African bee and the African conditions. The weather in Europe is different, the bees are different, so it’s been a matter of bringing in these hives and adapting them to suit the local conditions,” the entrepreneur says.
Secondly, the business had to properly understand the environment and the vegetation- to know which are the trees and shrubs that produce honey, ‘since not all vegetation produce the fluid.’
Third, Simeoni says, they had to properly understand the African bee, which is completely different from the European bee. “This is a very aggressive bee, with unique behaviours different from the European bee. Learning its characteristics has been an extensive process as, ironically, there’s no information available on beekeeping locally.”
“But in the Western world, you only need to link up with a beekeeping association, get a flora calendar, where you get to know which plants are flowering and at what month. Then you can plan. Here we’re inventing the wheel basically.”
Simeoni, however, says Non-governmental Organizations, the donor community and a handful of professional beekeepers have so far made strides, even though they’re still learning in an effort to develop the local beekeeping industry.
Some of the efforts include; changing the beehives to suit local conditions, researching on and controlling bee predators such as ants and harnessing the insects’ welfare to boost honey quality.
19 years since inception, African Beekeepers now employs 20 people directly and between 50 to 100 others indirectly. The firm also produces between 5 and 8 tonnes of honey every year, which is sold in specific outlets like some lead Supermarkets and Healthy shops, at retail prices of Ksh800 a kilo and Ksh400 for 500grams bottles. There are plans to increase production scale to 100 tonnes.
While honey is African Beekeepers’ flagship product, the company was until recently producing honey-laced straws. But the ban on plastics halted production. The firm also supplies beekeeping equipments ranging from; langstroth beehives, bee suits, hive stands, catcher boxes and bee brushes, among others, to clients.
Additionally, the company offers consultancy services, such as the International Gorilla Conservation Programme and beekeeping for the San people in Namibia- projects both undertaken in 2005.
In August 2015, ABL ventured into Baringo honey value chain partnership project in partnership with an international NGO to train the organization’s staff as well as Baringo honey value chain project members on modern beekeeping and honey production techniques.
The company is currently undertaking commercial pollination in the country, whereby it is contracted to place well stocked beehives next to field crops to pollinate them and increase production and quality.
According to Simeoni, two years ago, ABL secured a contract on a 30-hectare commercial raspberry plantation in Nanyuki, which would run until the raspberries start flowering, so as to increase quality and acceptability of the fruits in the export market.
The company placed some 150 well-stocked langstroth beehives in seven locations of the plantation, closer to the raspberry fields in clusters that were enclosed with shade netting fence 10 feet high so that the bees would fly from the beehives and over the fence, for them not to interfere with field workers.
“Pollination in raspberries takes about five months, period of flowering, afterwards we remove the bees. The payment is per beehive per day, including beehive mobilization fee until the period of flowering ends. This year, we believe the farmer is going to farm 50 hectare of the plants, and we hope to sign 2019-2020 contract, where we’ll supply the farm with 200 beehives to do the pollination, Simeoni says.
“This is a new niche we’re currently exploring to harness the full potential. In the western world and South Africa, commercial pollination is big business. It’s actually bigger than honey.”
His local project, he explains, is taking shape at an interesting time, when the Kenyan government is helping farmers move into commercial avocado farming. And bees, being the plant pollinator, will play a key role in avocado plantations.
Despite the market challenges, Simeoni sees a bright future in professional beekeeping. He says government should support regulations that facilitate proper beekeeping to make the industry attractive for doing business.
And while accessing markets such as the US with products like honey is a big hassle- due to the strict quality and standardization bureaucracies, Simeoni is glad his company made milestones when their honey harvested in Maasai Mara hit the export market in 2014.
When the product successfully went through the vigorous FDA checks and released into the US market for consumption, ABL put Kenya on the pedestal of pure honey exporters, trading in the lucrative export market.
Simeoni’s business is currently training local youth and potential entrepreneurs interested in professional commercial beekeeping, with the hope that the local industry is properly harnessed to enable production of pure and quality honey whilst protecting the bees to save current and future generations from hunger and malnutrition.