Most people would agree that, traditionally, beekeeping in Ethiopia is carried out by smallholder male farmers using a limited number of beehives in or near their homestead in a fixed flora-rich environment. But the beekeeping practice we observed on one farm in Wurko town in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, is completely different. Firstly, the work is managed by a young lady, Mileat Gebrehiwot, who just completed high school education and has had no formal training in beekeeping. Secondly, unlike most smallholder farmers who are accustomed to keeping a few beehives, she manages 80 beehives in about 1,600 m2 of land. Thirdly, as her apiary is situated in a rocky hillside that barely supports diverse bee flora throughout the year, her colony management strategy is completely based on moving the beehives seasonally.
Mileat is one of the beekeepers technically supported by the Livestock and Irrigation Value Chains for Ethiopian Smallholders (LIVES) project and is a member of a local beekeeping platform. We wanted to further explore the mystery of her success in beekeeping that could be beneficial to other beekeepers in the country.
Mileat inherited the skill of beekeeping from her father who died unexpectedly in 2010 leaving behind the full responsibilities of managing 60 beehives to his family members. As a teen, she was always by her father’s side and gained basic skills in managing honeybees and later developed the practical skill of splitting honeybee colonies. Mileat’s inherited skill and knowledge helped her to convince her mother to retain 10 of the beehives after the death of her father almost five years ago. Now she is the owner of 80 hives. Fifty of them are used for honey production and the remaining 30 are managed according to the requirements of a breeding colony. The average annual honey harvest in 2014 was 600 kg, which earned her about ETB 120,000 (USD 5870). Her additional income from the sale of 30 colonies is about ETB 48,000. Her clients are farmers from nearby districts, beekeeping youth associations and honey traders from Mekelle town.
Mileat’s colony management strategy is extraordinary in that she always recognizes spatial and temporal variations in her environment and moves, seasonally, all the beehives to areas where the preferred honeybee flora such as Leucas abyssinica, Becium grandiflorum, acacia and other low growing herbs are abundant. She does this by renting a lorry, for a one way trip, at a cost of ETB 1,300. Before deciding to move the colonies, she first identifies sites rich in bee flora and assesses the availability of both nectar (for honey) and pollen (for colony strength) in sufficient quantities. Once she is sure of the abundance of flora, she trains casual workers in loading and unloading of beehives and the security measures needed to minimize damage to the queen and possible absconding. The movement of colonies takes place in June and terminates in November each year, and sites chosen for movement are located within a 30 km radius. She indemnifies the owners of such sites by paying their land tax and giving them oilseed planting materials free of charge. Once they have been relocated, Mileat closely inspects each of the hives at least once a week and provides additional food as needed. She believes that the proper feeding of honeybees is an essential for minimizing absconding and weakening the population of wax moths and other pests.
Mileat also renders services to her community free of charge including wax molding, supporting families in need of colony splitting and honey harvesting. Her plan is to establish a honey exporting company by leasing a large area in her native birthplace, Wukro.
In conclusion, the young beekeeper has defeated the long held stereotype about the inability of women to engage in beekeeping and successfully demonstrated the possibility of large scale mobile beekeeping even in areas where the availability of bee flora is not sufficient to sustain a colony throughout the year.
Written by Yayneshet Tesfay, Dirk Hoekstra and Dawit Woldemariam.