DRIPPING SWEET: BUILDING A VIBRANT BEE KEEPING AGRIBUSINESS

Erick Kamau (left) and Philip Muchemi co-founders of Waiyaki Way Beekeepers infront of one of their shops.
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Waiyaki Way Beekeepers harnesses the power of bees to provide quality honey products

By Joseph Macharia

What comes to your mind when you think of bees? Honey? You are not alone. But to the co-founders of Waiyaki Way Beekeepers –  Philip Muchemi and Erick Kamau –  the answer is a beekeeping agribusiness. As a matter of fact, bees not only produce honey,  they also manufacture propolis, royal jelly and bee venom.  Having an idle family land in Nyeri, the two partners  (who are also brothers)  decided to venture into apiculture about five years ago fuelled by their palpable passion for bees. Their passion is so contagious that if you listen to them,  you might become a bee enthusiast almost instantly.

After a year or so in   beekeeping  and   with only twenty hives,   they noticed that   there is a huge demand for bee products which they could hardly meet. “We identified a gap of honey products especially in Kiambu  and we needed to fill it,” shares Muchemi one of the partners. To fill the gap they needed to expand which led them to lease a parcel of land at Muhuri Road along Waiyaki Way for setting an apiary. Similarly, they have been engaging with bee farmers in Nyeri, Murang’a, Kiambu and Naivasha to increase honey output to satisfy  the   demand for honey.

Of course, we all love honey. We   even use the word   honey  to express affection. In the scriptures,  honey is a symbol of sweetness and abundance. Beekeeping has abnormally high returns if done right. That notwithstanding, our honey production is very low. We import close to  eighty   percent of honey. Kenya is estimated to produce about 11,000 metric tonnes of honey and  two to  three   tonnes of wax annually. That   is roughly a fifth of what is needed for our population.

Honey operation

From the first twenty hives, they have expanded to 250 hives including  the ones   belonging to farmers whom they have subcontracted. They use the two major types of hives: Kenya top bar hive and langstroth hives. The former is V-shaped with top-bars,  while the latter are rectangular in shape with frames for bees to build combs on.

“Different hives have different capacities. With the Kenya top bar hive you can produce ten  to  twelve  kilos; a langstroth you are looking at about eight  to  ten  kilos,” Kamau explains adding that Kenya top bee hives are ideal for farmers interested in honey and other products like wax, royal jelly and propolis. Langstroth bee hives are excellent at producing liquid honey. You can harvest  two  to three  times a year.

A kilogram of honey will fetch Ksh. 800 while the  same amount of wax costs Kshs. 1200. Propolis and royal jelly will leave your wallet with a dent given their immense benefits. The duo sell their (BEEZ HONEY) branded products from their three shops around Nairobi as well as other retail outlets like supermarkets and defense forces canteens across the country.

Some of the bee hives they harvest honey from.

Obstacles

Tasting honey is sweet; making money from honey is even sweeter, but it comes with challenges. Key among them is climate change which is responsible for prolonged droughts affecting bees directly. Drought causes plants to stop flowering leading to reduced forage for bees. When there is water scarcity coupled with inadequate forage, bees lower their production of honey.

Adulteration of honey is another menace. Farmers with pure natural honey have a hard time convincing customers. “Getting people to believe that you have a legitimate  product is  not easy,” Muchemi comments.

Vandalism is also real. Given that they use steel to raise their bee hives, thieves often sneak in to steal the steel destroying hives which result to loss of colonies. Pests like safari ants and wax moth also cause a lot of damage by killing entire colonies. Pesticides too are a thorn in the flesh. Interaction of bees with sprayed plants may result in contamination of honey or even death of bees.

 Their current production does not  meet the   market demand. “When you are selling pure unadulterated honey, you will have a market that you won’t be able to satisfy because people will gain trust with your products,” Muchemi observes.

Requirements

The first thing to consider if you want to keep bees is safety. “Ensure where you want to keep your bees is away from people and livestock,” cautions Muchemi. Safety also entails having the necessary gear and equipment during harvesting.

Of course you will need a piece of land with adequate forage in the vicinity and near a water source like a river.  A small  parcel of  land  will  do. You can stack hives alongside each other. Bees are smart insects; they follow pheromone from the queen so they can’t miss their home.

“Naturally, a bee will go up to  five  kilometres  in search of nectar and water so that by the time it gets back to the hive,  the process of creating honey would have taken place in its body. Once back, it regurgitates the sweet syrup,” Muchemi explains adding that during dry spells,  a farmer may need to provide water to prevent bees from  leaving   the hive.                 

Harvesting

With Langstroth bee hive, after getting comb honey-filled frames, you install them in a centrifugal machine. Using centrifugal force,  you remove the honey, but the combs will remain intact. For Kenya top bar hive you have to cut off the comb then install the comb to a honey press machine to get your honey. Once harvested, it is stored in food grade containers before being pasteurized. From crude honey, you get the semi-refined honey. Pasteurizing helps honey to have a longer shelf life so that it doesn’t crystallize fast. Fun fact:  Honey does not expire as long as it is stored in airtight container. (Did you know that?)

Role of bees in our ecosystem

Apart from honey which is a source of food, bees produce other by products like propolis, royal jelly, bee wax and bee venom. “Bees make propolis from resins or from the back of trees for protection against viral, bacterial and fungal infections by smearing the walls of the hive,” Kamau explains. As a result,  propolis has a lot of medicinal value. Royal jelly is rich in nutrients that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidants properties which boost  a person’s health. Bee venom has traditionally been used to treat inflammatory diseases such as rheumatism.

Bees with their busy-buzz activities support growth of plants enhancing biodiversity. At least ninety   percent of all plants require cross pollination to exist. At least  eighty  percent of crop pollination is done by bees. Many species of plants would cease to exist if it were not for bees’ role as pollinators. Their critical role in pollination cannot be overstated. On average, bees collectively pollinate a couple of hundred billion plants  (both wild and planted ) every year. You cannot skip a day without eating a meal which was pollinated by a bee.

Wake up call

In a complex food chain, bees are food to at least twenty  four   species of birds and a host of insects which helps to keep equilibrium in the ecosystem. Tragically, bee population is dwindling due to climate change, use of pesticides and shrinking forest cover. We can help maintain bee population by planting more flowers, practising   organic farming, conserving water catchment areas and buying locally produced honey. Better still,  you can become a bee ‘ambassador’ by keeping bees.

Erick Kamau holding branded honey.

Word to youths

“There are no jobs, but there are ideas. It’s a challenge having ideas without capital but youths are lacking patience. Opportunities are there; they only need to know how to tap them,” Kamau opines. “They want it easy. You can’t start anything today and start making money immediately.”

Way forward

“We are looking at having more bee hives, about  one thousand  in total. We are targeting to partner with more farmers across the country,” Muchemi shares. If an average hive produces  eight  kilos, one thousand   hives translate to eight  thousand   kilos or eight tonnes per harvest. “We encourage our farmers whom we are working with to set up apiaries in places where there is minimal farming in order to maintain the natural taste of honey.”

The team also is experimenting with a type of stingless bees which are smaller in size compared to the African bees. These ‘stingless bees’ are mostly found in Western and Mombasa regions. “We have a colony of stingless bees, we are on the experimental stage observing their production to see whether it is worth keeping more,” he ends.

Quick facts about bees

1 Bees communicate through ‘waggle’ dance.

2 Only female bees can sting.

3 Male bees are kicked out of the hive when they cannot mate.

4 The queen bee can select the sex of their larvae.

5 Bees attack smells like banana.

6 Bees can recognize human faces and even detect explosives.

7. A bee colony is technically immortal.

8 Bees have a sweet tooth, they love sweet-tasting stuff and caffeine.

9 A hexagonal shape of a honey comb is the most optimal shape of a beehive.

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