Entrepreneurs try to Boost Honey Production Through Technology
Global demand for honey is on the rise. According to the BBC, global demand almost always exceeds supply, especially in recent years, when bee colonies in the West have been plagued by parasites. This leaves a large window of opportunity for countries like Ethiopia, which produce thousands of tonnes of honey per year. However, insiders say that bee farmers could be doing more to harness the local production capacity – and earn more money from this prized commodity. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale spoke with scientists and farmers to learn more about methods to increase honey production.
History demonstrates that beekeeping, which is a method of collecting honey for household and commercial use, is a practice that dates back millennia in Ethiopia. Despite its long tradition, however, the potential of beekeeping remains underdeveloped, since more than 95Pct of the honey produced locally is done using primitive methods.
For instance, Ethiopia only produced 79,000 tonnes of honey in the 2015/16 fiscal year, up from 67,000 tonnes from the previous fiscal year, according to data from the Ministry of Livestock and Fishery (MoLF). The number of bee colonies in a country determines the amount of honey that can be produced. According to estimates from the Central Statistical Agency (CSA), there are currently 5.8 million bee colonies, while some experts estimate that figure is around 7 million.
While Ethiopia is by far the largest producer of honey in Africa, data suggests the country isn’t utilising its full potential. Taking the average number of bee colonies, Ethiopia’s current potential for honey production is estimated at 500,000 tonnes per year, which means the country is producing less than 20Pct of its potential.
Growing global demand for honey demonstrates that increased production is beneficial, especially African countries looking to increase their export volume. According to African Business Magazine, the price of honey in some Sub-Saharan countries is five times what a litre of petrol costs – and in Arab countries, where honey is prized for religious purposes, the price of one kilo of honey can reach upwards of USD20.
As the largest producer of honey in Africa, Ethiopia is uniquely positioned to seize this increased global demand, as countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia have been plagued by the effects of disease, parasites, pests and climate change – all of which have led to a significant decline in bee populations and honey production.
To this end, experts say that the existing bee colonies and the actual honey production of the country can be increased through technological enhancement, which is almost non-existent in Ethiopia. However, this trend is beginning to change. Currently, there are five companies involved in modern bee colony multiplication, sales and honey production practice.
Wubshet Adugna, owner and General Manager of Apinec Agro-Industry, says that the potential of honey production is severely undermined, especially as technology is concerned. His company is one of the few honey exporters involved in bee colony grafting and honey production. He started this business in 2009, after noticing the technological gap in the apiculture sector.
Wubshet says he started the business after receiving support from Oxfam GB, which is a leading UK charity fighting global poverty; Agri-ProFocus, a networking platform of experts in the agriculture sector; and the Netherlands Development Organisation. “When I started, the modern bee colony multiplication and production practice was new for the country,” he recalls.
Globally, bee colony multiplication is performed by grafting honeybee queens and used mostly by commercial breeders because it is a reliable, cheap and quick method of bee colony multiplication. It was Nicol Jacobis, a German scientist and beekeeper, who first argued that new queen bees can be raised from worker bees in his book entitled Die rechte Bienen-Kunst, published in 1568.
Many technologies and methods of queen rearing have since been developed. However, all technologies are based on the natural order, in which a bee colony contains a queen that controls productivity and the functioning of the colony as well as drones and workers. Since these castes are developed as a result of preferential feeding during the larval stages, honeybee queen grafting is performed by transferring worker larvae from its cells to queen cell cups. Placed under the right conditions, worker larvae will be converted to queen cells. Then, the new queen bees will replace old queens or start new colonies.
Amsalu Bezabih (PhD), Research Coordinator at the National Biotechnology Research Lab at the Holeta Bee Research Centre (HBRC), which is under the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute, says a traditional bee colony, which can have 10,000 to 80,000 bees, can be split into two colonies. “The modern grafting system mostly existed in developed countries. [With these methods] a colony can be split into 200 new colonies within a month,” she explains. “However, as it is a new trend in Ethiopia, one can get 30 colonies comfortably, without too much effort.”
Grafting can be done in two ways, according to Wubshet, both of which he is currently utilising. The first method involves creating many queens, thereby creating new colonies: “Naturally, only an egg that is fed with the royal jelly by the worker bees becomes the queen of a colony. However, if as many larvae are fed with the royal jelly, with human support, that egg can become a queen, rather than being worker bees, and can establish and lead their own colonies.”
He continues: “The second method is by using artificial insemination, taking a pubescent queen from a good colony to the lab and raising the offspring in incubators. A fertilised egg can be a queen or a worker bee – it is just a matter of feeding it with royal jelly or not. You can increase the number of both as you want, depending on the resources available.”
Amsalu lauds the benefit of grafting in the apiculture sector, which is struggling with the lack of investment and traditional method of production for many years. “The problem is a lack of investment in modern technologies, which limits beekeepers’ ability to increase the number of bee colonies, which in turn, determines the productivity of the sector,” she argues. “Introducing such technologies countrywide will have a ripple effect that can change the destiny of the sector.”
Wubshet says the ripple effect is already happening. “In addition to using the method for myself, I give trainings for farmers at my bee colony multiplying ranches. My company has given such trainings to more 2,000 people in the Amhara and Southern regions,” he states. “I also established a training centre in a place that is densely forested located in the Southern region.”
According to Wubshet, these farmers have started producing and selling the bee colonies at prices ranging between ETB500 and ETB1,000, depending on the area. “Especially in the State of Tigray, where natural bee colonies are scarce, a colony is fetching up to ETB1,500,” he says. “But, the colony grafting technology needs to work both on the multiplication of the queen as well as worker bee stocks.”
Other entities are implementing similar strategies. After witnessing the benefits, the State of Oromia has finalised a feasibility study to establish a bee research, colony production and training centre, to be built with ETB36 million. The centre will have a 36km radius area, in which the research will be supported with satellite reading.
“Since grafting requires skill, the government is conducting research because, though the grafting technique is already known, studies are required to adopt the technology properly in every environmental condition of the country,” says Yeneneh Asefa, Bee Breeding Rearing Senior Officer at the MoLF. “Currently, the Ministry has also selected four sites in four regions, to establish training centres.”
According to Yeneneh, the centres, which will be established in the Tigray, Amhara, Southern and Oromia regions, will conduct grafting, train farmers and issue certificates. “This is essential to achieve the government’s plan to increase honey production by 15Pct every year,” he argues.
However, experts say even the potential can expand with skills and more investment. “There is a queen bee scarcity in the country and increasing this means increasing honey production exponentially throughout the country,’’ said Atsede Zewdie, Honey and Silk Products Small Scale Technology Expansion Senior Officer at the MoLF. ‘‘Coupled with effective agricultural extension system the result will be immense.”
Yeneneh concurs with Atsede’s assessment. “If supported with modern equipment and the right practice, an increased number of colonies can bring dynamic increment in the honey production,” he argues. “The government will also work with companies that have already started the technology.”
Apinec Agro-Industry is currently trying to employ a full technology of the prototypes, using the grafting system with modern equipment and practices for honey production, with ten farmers, according to Wubshet. “We are at the very beginners’ stage, so far. There is a lot to be done in introducing the practice and changing it to transform honey production methods. It requires knowing the bees’ nature and biology, quality beekeeping equipment, skilled human power and seasoned management,” he says.
“Because the government has done less on this, our traditional farmers are not conditioned to this practice,” Amsalu argues. “It needs skill, facility and investment. Private investment is also highly needed.”
So far, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development allocates animal science extension workers to some kebeles. Allocating one bee technician for three woredas has started in the State of Tigray, according to stakeholders; a tactic some argue needs to be expanded to all regions.
However, experts say that the agricultural extension system is not that effective because the workers are not properly trained in this area. They also say the sector is not supported with full technology, because of the nature of subsistence farming and inconsistent agricultural policy. They recommend exploiting the potential of the country with suitable policies and better involvement of the private sector.
Atsede also admits the existence of these gaps. “Extension workers just have general knowledge,” she says. “Exploiting the enormous potential of beekeeping is only possible with the introduction of technologies and capacity building trainings throughout the country.” EBR
5th Year • December 16 2016 – January 15 2017 • No. 46