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Domesticating bees for honey has been done in Kenya since pre-colonial periods. From traditional hives all the way now to KTBH hives. It has been practiced from time immemorial. In older times, bees were kept in log hive which includes traditional beehives. But initially bees before domestication used to nest in the open or semi-enclosed spaces. In comparison, bees in the open/wild produce far less honey than bees confined in enclosures. There are good reasons for this

  1. Colonies in the open are exposed to predators, such as honey badgers & ants. They therefore have to employ a lot more worker bees as guards to fight off intruders. thus, have fewer foraging bees
  2. They must consume large quantities of honey, which they use as fuel, to enable them to cluster to stop the wind which cools down their combs and to generate enough heat to maintain the proper temperature for brood development.
  3.  During severely hot days, more bees must use honey as fuel to enable them to fan and cool melting combs to avoid disaster. This temperature control can only be quite inefficient, because of the colony’s exposed condition. The exposed colony therefore must keep larger numbers of house bees and will thus have fewer foraging bees available to bring in the needed nectar and other essentials from the field.
  4. Harvesting from wild bees would also be a challenge due to the areas where the bees built their honeycombs would not be easily accessible

With the increased interest in beekeeping and the growing demand for honeybee products and services, bees can no longer be maintained in their few natural dwelling places, but must be provided with beehives if we are to take advantage of this wonderful natural sweet resource

Traditional Hives

Log hive


Mainly found in East Africa (e.g. Kenya and Tanzania) with some found as far as western Africa, a tree is felled and cut into cylindrical logs which are carefully scooped out to form hollows. They are then sealed, leaving some small holes for exit and entry.



Log Hive in Africa. Picture from http://www.mnh.si.edu/kakamega/honeyandsilk.html

In Tanzania, the hive is split into halves, which the beekeeper attaches together before baiting and installation. At harvest time, the hive is split open and the honeycombs removed. The halves are then rejoined for the bees to start the next honey crop.

The clay-pot hive

The cheapest and most durable of all the traditional hives is the clay pot, very popular especially in the northern savannah of West Africa. The pot is like the type generally used to carry water or other liquids, modified to provide a wider mouth and a small mid-section hole for both exit and entry.



Clay pot hive image courtesy: https://pbs.twimg.com

The pots, usually made by the elderly women, are bisque-fired, and the inner part is smoked as part of the baiting. They are then baited with cow dung or other waste and installed on the ground or on pegs in trees. In some areas, the pots are turned upside down directly on the ground, for beekeepers find that when they are installed on a flat plate or wood, bees glue the plate firmly to the hive with propolis, making harvesting tedious. This method of installation, however, has a serious drawback: frequent ant invasions force some bee colonies to abscond.

Modern Hives

The modern beehives widely used throughout Kenya & much of eastern Africa is the Langstroth Beehive & the Kenya Top Bar Hive. Thereby, our discussion here will only include the two.

Keep a look out for future posts regarding the performance of the flow hive in Kenya

Langstroth beehive

This beehive is based of the discovery of Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth. Langstroth invented a hive with frames separated from each other, in which the bees could build their comb. The frames are so arranged that they can be removed individually without disturbing other combs and without crushing bees

Beehives on bench

Also that the queen can be confined to the lowest brood, chamber, by means of a queen excluder. In this way, the upper chambers (called supers) can be reached only by the workers, and therefore contain only honey-comb.

Our Langstroth Hive can be viewed HERE

The Kenya Top Bar Hive

The KTBH was developed along principles of certain Greek basket hives which may date back to the time of Aristotle. In the top-bar hive, the Langstroth frame is replaced by a simple modification of the top bar of the Langstroth frame, and the bees build their combs hanging down from the centre of the bar.

Since the combs are not supported on all four sides as they are in the Langstroth frame, they can break more easily, but because they are fixed only to the top-bars and not to the hive body, it is still possible — with care — to remove and replace them at any time for inspection or other management practices.

image courtesy of
https://backyardbeekeeping.iamcountryside.com

The box is wider at the top than the bottom and this design of the KTBH (an inverted trapezoid when seen in cross-section) allows the bees to maintain the natural shape of their comb. Since this shape is stable the bees will leave a bee-space along all edges of the comb rather than connecting it to the walls of the hive. Honeycomb in natural nests is roughly in the shape of a “U”, wider at the top than at the bottom. This shape is stable even when supported only along the top edge

You can buy different parts of a Langstroth hive from 3 different suppliers, and they will all fit together, but KTBHs come in all shapes and sizes. Since there is no need while harvesting to use any standardized equipment, most KTBH sellers in Kenya would have different sizes & dimension. And this would be okay still. However just avoid the ones that are a bit smaller than usual to maximize honey output

Advantages and disadvantages of langstroth and top-bar hives

Advantages of the langstroth hive

  1. The comb is fixed firmly to the four sides of the frame. This facilitates easy harvesting, and the beekeeper has little fear of damaging the comb. Wire also runs through the frame and adds additional support
  • The strength of the built-in comb also allows easy transportation, even over bad roads. It also affords easy control of a colony of bees without fear of breakage before the arrival at the new destination.
  • Honey is extracted by means of the centrifugal honey extractor, which makes it possible to remove the honey without damaging the comb. Empty combs are returned to the hive for the bees to refill with new honey, thus saving the bees from wasting time and energy to construct a replacement comb. Honey harvests are maximized, as the beekeeper can obtain several honey crops within the year. Thus, it is ideal for a serious large-scale honey production project.
  • During hive manipulations, very few bees are crushed between frames, whereas dozens of bees can easily be killed by careless handling of top-bars.
  • The hive is so designed (with queen excluder and supers) that the queen and brood are confined to the lower chamber. Supers contain only honey, and the lower brood chamber is undisturbed when honey is harvested.
  • A swarm of bees can be hived with ease. Bees can easily pass through the numerous spaces between the frame and at the top of the hive.
  • Hive boxes can be stacked easily. This makes it easy to expand and contract the hive to meet the needs of the bee colony.

Disadvantages of the Langstroth beehive

  1. A frame hive with two supers costs three times as much as a Kenyan 27-top-bar hive. Price range of Standard KTBH is 3000-3500. A Langstroth beehive costs 4000 upwards
  • A high degree of craftsmanship is required to build the hive. Frame dimensions must be precise. Local village carpenters are not usually skilled enough for the job, and suitable tools for large-scale production of frame parts may not be available. Incorrect measurements would hinder the fit on frames in an extractor, limiting the benefits of a langstroth beehive
  • The need to keep a stock of frames to replace those removed during the honey harvest creates an additional cost. If not replaced soon thereafter
  • Higher capital inputs due to required equipment to harvest honey this includes, centrifugal honey extractors, decapping-knives, decapping trays and other sophisticated equipment cannot be ruled out.

Advantages of the top-bar hive

  1. This hive is cheaper and easier to produce than a frame hive. Any semi-skilled carpenter can make it. Only a few simple carpentry tools are required.
  • There is little or no need to have extensive processing equipment. All materials required can be obtained locally. Crushed honey combs can be processed with a single honey press
  • The hive can be opened easily and quickly. There is little or no need to employ a hive tool. Top-bars can be constructed to overlap the sides of the hive body slightly, and this makes it possible to use the thumb to pry up the top-bar.

During harvesting, the bee farmer can slide bars as they go through the beehive. This created a ‘roof’ of bars making it easier to keep bees calm and reducing the effort & use of a bee smoker

  • Bees in the top-bar hive can easily be controlled when harvesting or inspecting the combs.

Exposes only a small part of the colony at a time. The smoker puffs smoke through the opening created by the removal of one top-bar. Few bees can attack since the beekeeper drives them away with smoke. When the top cover is removed from the langstroth hive, all the frames spaces are exposed, which permits numerous attackers to fly out and attack the beekeeper.

  • More beeswax can be produced. Sales of beeswax increase the beekeeper’s earnings. Since the full honeycomb is harvested unlike in the langstroth hive only the honey is taken, the honeycomb is left intact
  • Removes the need of having to buy foundation wax as with langstroth beehives
  • Honeycombs adulterated with pollen can be of high value. Pollen is a nutritious food supplement; the only way the nutrition is passed on is through honey harvested from such combs.
  • Only a few extra top-bars need be held in stock to replace worn-out or damaged bars.

Disadvantages of the top-bar hive

  1. A newly-constructed comb and all combs filled with honey must be handled with the utmost care. It is not advisable to move a top-bar hive, occupied by bees and combs, on lorries along bad roads full of potholes.
  • Honey can only be extracted by destroying honeycombs, either by using the solar wax melter to dissolve the comb cells or by crushing them and squeezing out the honey by using a honey wax press.

Bees have to build up new ones in their place, and this involves time, material and resources of the honeybees. Taking up more time in-between harvesting periods as compared to the langstroth beehive

  • Bees are often crushed between top-bars as the beekeeper rearranges the bars after removing them from the hive body. This problem can be serious when colonies are manipulated at night. When bees are crushed in this way, it is difficult to fix the last top-bar into place. Crushing bees is usually not a serious problem with frame hives.
  • A top-bar hive is relatively easy to steal, as it is light and compactly designed. It is more difficult to steal hives and supers arranged one above the other.

What’s been your experience using either of these two hives in Kenya. Or are you using other hives? Feel free to share your beekeeping journey in the comments below

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