Introduction to sustainable Beekeeping in South Africa

Africa currently produces approximately 150,000 tonnes of honey annually. Most of the honey is harvested by traditional methods and is not fit to be marketed commercially. The biggest producing countries in Africa are Ethiopia (45,000 Tonnes) and Tanzania (8,000 tonnes), of which less than 10% is exported. (In contrast Turkey produces 114,000 tonnes on its own)

With the introduction of modern professional beekeeping practices and the necessary support Africa has the potential to become a major producer of honey and bee by-products. With its abundant natural resources, the opportunity is virtually limitless, however it requires a concerted effort and long-term commitment from all the stake holders to improve the industry as a whole.

This document addresses the current challenges and opportunities for beekeeping in Africa, with an outline proposal of how the commercial farmer or honey producer can dramatically improve their efficiencies in production which can irrevocably benefit the local communities with their direct involvement.

Traditional Beekeeping in South Africa

Traditionally honey has been harvested by hunter-gatherers for millennia and is still the predominant method applied today and mainly done by men. The use of bark and log hives are also popular as they are cheap and easy to make from readily available nectar producing trees.

The use of bark and log hives are extremely inefficient and have an adverse effect on the local environment –

  • A sharp increase in the loss of trees due to bark hive construction and charcoal manufacturing, has contributed to 14% deforestation in Africa.
  • Reduction of the number of trees, and as a result the available flowers in the apiary surrounds on which the bees forage
  • This has a huge impact on the amount of honey that can be produced.
  • These types of hives do not lend themselves to beekeeping management practises and are therefore not sustainable.
  • Honey produced is generally of poor quality due to destruction of the cones, over- smoking and eventual absconding by the bees.
  • The productivity of these hives is also very low with an average of 0-10 kg of honey per year during a strong honey flow season.

The adoption of modern beehives has led to a shift from harvesting honey from feral colonies in natural nesting places to capturing bee colonies in manufactured hives.

In Kenya the introduction of “Kenya Top Bar Hives” (KTB) has improved productivity and another major benefit has been the participation of women in beekeeping – it is estimated that 85% of female beekeepers in Africa use KTB hives.

By using modern beekeeping methods and highly productive Langstroth beehives, honey production will increase even further, which will improve the livelihood of the community due to additional income and can lead to a reduction of deforestation (charcoal production & log / bark hives)

Log Hive

Beekeeping constraints in South Africa

Despite the conducive environment for beekeeping in Africa, the sector faces several constraints which restrict it from reaching its full potential to contribute significantly to poverty alleviation and increase in honey production.

The main constraints include:

  • General lack of collaboration between stakeholders in the sector, notably the service providers and beekeeping support is fragmented sometimes even duplicated, and predominantly focused on training new farmers in basic beekeeping skills.
  • Very little beekeeping or no beekeeping management practices are in place to prevent colonies to abscond and to improve productivity.
  • Reliance on the use of traditional equipment and tools in harvesting, extraction, processing, and the packaging of hive products.
  • No implementation of proper feeding programs for the bees during the dry season to prevent colonies from absconding and to secure a high hive occupancy rate.
  • Poor extension service and lack of appropriate beekeeping knowledge.
  • Little knowledge of honey processing to produce honey of a high quality for a niche market.
  • Beekeepers are often more remote, less literate, have little experience with traders and businesses, and not willing to take any financial risks compared to than other farmers.
  • Beekeeping as a sector is overlooked, neglected, and attracts little serious investment and support.
  • Infrastructure, roads and transport facilities in most beekeeping areas are extremely poor, which increases transaction cost.
  • Producers lack market information and entrepreneurial skills and therefore are not able to locate input and credit providers, find buyers and negotiate fair prices.
  • Lack of modern beekeeping equipment, training and the implementation of professional beekeeping mentorship programs.“Changes to the use of old beekeeping equipment and farming techniques, in Africa’s richest honey producing areas, will secure a sustainable honey trading business to form a strong investment platform.” (Bees for Development -2016 – The Africa Honey Trade: Unlocking the potential)

The potential for honey production and the direct benefits of an improved industry are immense, however the issues need to be addressed on a micro scale initially, and we believe we can contribute to the process through the implementation of our “Ubusi Africa Beekeeping Programme”.

Transforming Beekeeping through a Commercial Approach

“Commercial beekeeping is the modern art and science of managing honeybees for the purpose of tapping their commercial potential” – also known as “Apiculture”.

Whilst it has been defined in various ways, all definitions point to the art of managing honeybees sustainably for the purpose of tapping into the benefits of its resources.

Beekeeping is more than just collecting and retaining bees in a hive on an apiary site or putting a hive in an apiary and waiting to benefit from the bee colony. It involves effectively and sustainably managing the bee colony. This requires modern equipment and tools, applying appropriate beekeeping knowledge and skills, and accessing potential and profitable markets.

The process includes pest and predator control, apiary management, colony manipulation, bee foraging, record keeping, production and product management within a well-defined process.

A core component is the use of modern removeable frame commercial hives, the most efficient being “Langstroth Beehives” which improve productivity and honey quality further.

Professional training and mentorship programmes ensure that the efficiencies are achieved with significant benefit through the full value chain.

The five principals of professional Beekeeping

In general beekeeping in Africa is no different to anywhere else in the world, however the constraints (previously mentioned) dictate a more determined approach to ensure success. The following FIVE PRINCIPLES have been identified, and if one implements these then the programme will be successful.

  1. Quality equipment
  2. Continual training
  3. Community involvement
  4. Commercial viability
  5. A sustainable programme

Quality Equipment

“Equipment is everything”. This applies to every aspect of Beekeeping, from the Beehives to the tools utilised for managing and harvesting, to the processing of the honey and by- products.

The beehives need to be well maintained and provide a clean and safe environment for the bees. This will ensure that they do not abscond and remain productive indefinitely. The Langstroth hive, whilst expensive, has proven to be the most effective beehive available and the most productive in the long run. The cost can be recovered very quickly due to increased yield and cost-effective maintenance.

Managing and harvesting hives is critical to ensure that there is minimum loss of the swarms and can prove to be extremely dangerous. The Apis mellifera scutellata, (commonly known as the African killer bee) found is Eastern & Southern Africa is particularly aggressive. It is therefore important that the safety equipment provided is of high quality and robust to withstand the environment.

The processing of the honey and by-products need to be done in a sterile and clean environment to ensure that the honey is not compromised and retains a high quality.  Traditional beekeeping methods in Africa tend to result in over smoking and excessive damage resulting in compromised and low-quality honey.


Traditional beekeeping in Africa is a culture and deeply ingrained particularly in the rural areas. For a modern approach to be effective it is critical that the people involved have a complete understanding of the approach and the benefits that accrue to both the programme and the greater community.

Our experience is that initial training is quickly forgotten, and beekeepers revert to their traditional methods if follow up training is not conducted. Dedicated beekeepers, who are supported by a mentorship programme, quickly develop into “trainers” and ensure that the process remains professional.

A well-equipped programme is expensive and good training, applied process & procedure is critical to sustain the investment.

Community Involvement

A well applied beekeeping programme has obvious benefits for the community, particularly in the African rural environment.

It creates and opportunity to involve women who are traditionally marginalised and gives them a real sense of purpose and value. Not only does it create employment, but results in upliftment through training, development and progression in a sustainable industry. The economic benefits are obvious, whilst long term branding of the by-products creates value and premiumisation.

Quality throughout the whole value chain lends itself to the risk of theft and can quickly derail the programme – a community that is well versed in the benefits that accrue through a healthy bee project become the custodians of not only the bees, but also the hives and the associated equipment that is necessary to sustain it.

Commercial Viability

Beekeeping is a relatively expensive industry and the initial set up costs of a professional programme can make it prohibitive in many areas of Africa. Therefore, it is important to have a well-constructed plan, robust training and well managed implementation process – this will ensure a economically viable initiative that will quickly accrue benefits with a relatively low cost to maintain it.

The programme has to be commercially viable; a hobbyist or charitable approach will quickly degenerate into a prohibitively costly exercise with little credibility.


By applying the principles above – Quality Equipment, Training, Community Involvement and Commercialisation, on an on-going manner, then the programme becomes sustainable. It is critically important that all of these aspects are continually applied as they work in unison. The benefits for the environment, the farmer and importantly the community are immeasurable.

Langstroth Hives

The world’s largest honey producing countries only use removable frame Langstroth hives.

A well-managed colony, in a good quality Langstroth beehives, can produce up to 40kg per hive and in some cases can it reach a production of up to 65 kg per hive per year. This is conditional upon the use of full wax sheets
or extracted honeycombs.

South Africa is the leader in manufacturing and the use of Langstroth hives in Africa.

Langstroth hives have many advantages compared to the old traditional bark or log hives and Top Bar hives that are predominantly used in Africa –

– Harvesting process from a Langstroth hive is must quicker and easier.

–  Returning empty combs to the hive,
allowing bees to resume without having to rebuild their combs resulting in higher production rates.

–  Hive components are standardized and all parts are interchangeable, making it easy to manage a hive.

–  Productive colonies can easily be transported to other locations without the threat of losing the swarm in the prosses.

–  Easy to inspect and manage the colony resident in a Langstroth hive.

–  Easy to feed the colony during the off seasons to prevent the bees to absconding.

–  A well looked after hive can be productive for up to 15 years.

–  Easy to use for pollination purposes.

Bee Pollination

The benefits of pollination are well documented, however formal pollination programmes are not widely applied in Africa due to the initial cost implications and lack of expertise and the right equipment. Traditionally in Africa farmers rely on “natural pollination” or often maintain a few hives

but with limited on- going management techniques. Natural pollination is slowly diminishing due to deforestation in farm surrounds and fluctuating weather conditions such as droughts. The demand for commercial pollination services is growing rapidly.

Applying a professional beekeeping programme diminishes the impact of declining natural pollinators and very quickly increase the yields of their crops – the initial cost can be recovered purely through bee bi-products such as honey and wax, not to mention improved crop yield income.

Coffee Pollination

The most important coffee plants are Arabica (Coffea arabica) and Robusta (Coffea canephora).

Arabica plants are known as highland coffee plants and found above 1.200 – 1.5000 meters altitude. They are self-fertilizing and don’t necessarily need bees for pollination, being a wind-pollinated plant species. However, when bees are around Arabica plants, the coffee fruit harvest increases by up to 16%.

Robusta plants are lowland coffee plants. Most importantly, Robusta Coffee makes up around 40% of the world’s coffee production. They are used to an environment with a strong biodiversity. They are self-sterile and depend entirely on cross pollination. In short, they need bees!

To achieve optimum pollination, colonies should not be more than 150m apart and the number of colonies required varies from 2 to 4 hives per hectare.

Avocado Pollination

Pollination and fertilization of avocados, Persea americana, are prerequisites for fruit set and fruit development respectively.

As avocado flowers are not wind-pollinated they require active transfer of pollen by insects. Bees are by far the best pollinators as they actively collect nectar and pollen, and their hairy bodies are effective pollen carriers.

Studies in Southern Africa have indicated that avocado flowers proved much more attractive to honeybees than other competitive bee plants such as mango and litchi flowers. In the same studies honeybees did not only increase the crop yield but due to cross-pollination better quality fruits were also produced.

Introducing beehives to an avocado orchard can bring several benefits from a pollination perspective.

  • Increased pollination efficiency: Avocado trees have complex flower structures, and bees are well-suited to navigate and transfer pollen effectively.
  • Enhanced fruit set: Bees help transfer pollen from the male flower parts (anthers) to the female flower parts (stigma), leading to increased fruit set and higher yields.
  • Better fruit quality: Adequate pollination contributes to uniform fruit shape and size, enhancing market value.
  • Extended bloom period: A prolonged bloom period can increase the opportunity for successful pollination and subsequent fruit development.
  • Genetic diversity: Cross-pollination promotes genetic diversity, which can lead to healthier and more robust avocado trees over time.
  • Sustainability and ecosystem support: Bees play a crucial role in pollinating other crops and wildflowers, contributing to biodiversity and ecosystem health.

When incorporating beehives into an avocado orchard, it’s important to consider factors such as hive placement, hive health management, and the presence of suitable flowering plants throughout the season to support the bees’ foraging needs.

Like coffee, to achieve optimum pollination, colonies should not be more than 150m apart and the number of colonies required varies from 2 to 4 hives per hectare.

An African Solution

Ubusi prides itself in being able to offer a comprehensive, all-encompassing solution to address the needs of beekeepers in the African environment. After years of in-field experience they have developed a stand-alone containerised honey processing unit, which can easily be assembled and operational with in a week of arriving in the field.

The units are built to end-user specification and shipped with all the necessary equipment and materials to operate a fully integrated pollination programme and honey processing operation.

These units address all the professional beekeeping principles mentioned above and include the following equipment and materials –

  • Tool kits for assembling Langstroth hives.
  • Flat packed hives and honeycomb frames.
  • All hive management equipment (tools, bee suits, boots, gloves, veils etc)
  • Comprehensive honey processing plant (separators, filtration units, buckets)
  • Honey bottling unit
  • Apiary management kit.Upon receipt of the containerised unit, Ubusi will provide all instructions for site preparation and assembly. Thereafter they will personally conduct appropriate training for all phases of the operation –
  • Hive construction
  • Baiting of hives
  • Hive management
  • Honey harvesting
  • Honey processing
  • Hive reintroduction

Follow up training programmes are essential and can be arranged as an additional service. This could include a beekeeper mentoring programme which would take place over a longer period of time and could include field experience in South Africa as part of Ubusi’s pollination services.

Honey Processing Container

Ubusi Beekeeping now offers fully equipped Honey Processing Containers.  These containers offer Honey processing from beginning to end.  Fully complete with equipment, electrical points and water points installed.  These containers can be transported to any location.  Feel free to get more information from us on our contact page or to call us directly.