Bee wise project aims to curb fires and boost rural incomes

May 30, 2016

Home-made smoker made out of a paint tin … trainees are taught to make their own bee keeping equipment from old clothes, tins, etc.

An innovative project to train people in safe and sustainable bee-keeping in northern Zululand addresses the twin challenges of creating income-generation opportunities among poor rural communities – and curbing uncontrolled wildfires. CHRIS CHAPMAN reports …

The number of wildfires started by honey hunters in the Zululand area has risen sharply over the past few years, prompting local forestry stakeholders to team up with African Honey Bee, an innovative social/enterprise development agency, to turn this uncontrolled, informal activity into micro business opportunities.

The key objective of the project is to reduce the number of fires started by honey hunters by providing training in honey collection and bee-keeping. This has the spin-off of creating sustainable business opportunities for local communities, and provides many additional social and environmental benefits.

Sappi has stepped in to support and sponsor the bee farming training of community members and small-scale timber growers in the Sokhulu, Mbonambi and Melmoth areas by African Honey Bee (AHB). Awethu Forestry has partnered with AHB to roll out the training and enterprise development work in the Maputaland areas of Mbazwana and Manguzi.


Honey hunters – wearing home-made PPE – raid a wild hive in a tree stump. With the right equipment and some knowledge of honey farming, they are less likely to accidentally start a fire.

Training has already started in all of these areas, and some of the trainees are already making their own protective clothing and have started catching wild swarms in their hives. In addition to the funding from Sappi, AHB has secured funding from the government of Flanders, through IDC, to provide support, on-going training and mentoring to enable the emerging bee farmers to grow their businesses into the future.

Sappi’s area manager for Zululand, Grewar van Huyssteen, said old stumps in compartments and in open areas where forestry has been removed after wetland delineation provided a perfect home for wild swarming bees who move into forestry areas when the gums start flowering.

He said 90% of widlfires occurring in and around Sappi’s plantations in the KwaMbonambi area come from the Sokhulu tribal lands on the eastern boundary, and a strategy was needed to bring more structure to the informal honey hunting activities – a major cause of fires.

Dutliff Smith, Project Grow manager for Sappi, said the project at KwaMbonambi is a pilot that will be rolled out to other areas in KZN once it has proved its effectiveness.


Sappi and African Honey Bee are working together to provide training for communities around KwaMbonambi (left to right) Jerry Shabangu (community officer), Asanda Nomjalo (Sappi Project Grow), Grewar van Huyssteen (Sappi Estate Manager), Guy Stubbs (AHB) and Dutliff Smith (Sappi).

Spike in honey hunter fires
According to Tony Roberts, Fire Protection Officer at the Zululand Fire Protection Association, honey hunters were responsible for 24% of all wildfires that occurred in the Zululand area under the ZFPA’s watch during 2014. This percentage jumped to 40% of all fires in 2015, and to 66% in the first three months of 2016.

Although most of these fires were small and caused limited damage, they use up valuable fire fighting resources and have the potential to become big, destructive fires on orange and red days.

Tony believes the main reasons for the spike in honey hunter fires are the drought and deepening poverty and unemployment which is driving more people into the plantations to rob wild hives.

Average annual rainfall statistics for Zululand support this theory:-
2012 – 1 239 mm
2013 – 1 064 mm
2014 – 540 mm
2015 – 530 mm

He says many of the honey hunters are youngsters who know little about bee behavior. They start small fires upwind of a hive hoping the smoke will calm the bees, before attempting to rob the hive. They inevitably get stung and run away, leaving a smouldering fire behind.

The ZFPA has created a database of people who sell honey at the roadside throughout northern Zululand, and is encouraging them to attend the training as well.


A honey hunter sells wild honey at the road-side.

Training based on commitment
The training provided by AHB addresses the needs of rural people with few resources, and is based on individual commitment. Only those participants who complete the required tasks can continue to the next level of training. There are six modules which take participants from the basics of bee-keeping to the point where they are producing and marketing honey. Training includes home-based vegetable and poultry production to provide income throughout the year, as honey production is seasonal.

Trainees are taught to make their own bee-keeping PPE from old clothes, and smokers from recycled paint tins. Trainees receive beehive kits which they assemble themselves into functional beehives.

Working on Fire firefighters based at the ZFPA have attended the training, as they are engaging with local communities and schools to raise awareness around wildfires.


Working on Fire recruits make their own PPE for safe bee handling. They will pass on the information to communities surrounding forestry plantations.

A number of small-scale timber growers are also attending the training. They are in an ideal situation to do bee-keeping as a sideline as they live close to the plantations where there is plenty of food for the bees, and are always present to make sure the hives aren’t vandalized or stolen.

A total of 69 people attended the Level One training at KwaMbonambi and Maputaland during March this year. Guy reports that a number of the participants who attended the Level Two training module at KwaMbonambi in early April had already caught their own swarms.

Guy says that any honey hunter that attends the first day of training with AHB is already a reduced fire risk because they learn how to work with bees in a way that they can be protected from stings and use fire/smoke in a controlled way.


Trainees learn about controlling fire.

Long term vision
He stresses that AHB’s involvement is not a short-term exercise dependent on current project funding. AHB provides a platform for individual bee-keeping businesses to grow by providing access to market, ongoing training, mentorship, and technical and logistical support. Furthermore AHB incentivises partner bee-keeping businesses through sharing profits in the value chain.

AHB has an established track record of testing and implementing beekeeper development projects in Mpumalanga and Limpopo over the past 10 years. To date approximately 400 people have been trained, and are registered with AHB. One hundred twenty of these people are now actively beekeeping. About 50 of the beekeepers which AHB has established as family owned and operated beekeeping businesses (BKBs) are supplying honey to AHB.

Guy’s vision is to expand bee-keeping activities to southern KZN once it is well established in northern Zululand, and eventually to set up honey processing facilities around the province. Northern Zululand is an ideal starting point due to the large number of small-scale timber growers.

He said most of the honey sold in supermarkets around South Africa is imported Chinese honey that is highly processed, and the demand for pure, unprocessed local honey is high.


Trainees construct a bee hive from one of the AHB kits handed out during training sessions.

AHB has secured a guaranteed off-take agreement with Pharmamark (one of South Africa’s leading pharmaceutical distribution and marketing companies) to supply honey to 2000 pharmacies and health stores in South Africa.

Pharmamark has invested in developing a new brand that was launched in December 2015 called ‘Eat Naked Honey’ for marketing AHB’s honey. (Visit

All honey procured from the small-scale beekeepers will be gravity extracted, packaged and marketed through the Eat Naked brand.

Environmentally friendly beekeeping has an overwhelmingly positive impact on the natural flora and fauna – as well as the local communities who can develop a deep respect for the source of their economic development and a strong commitment to preserve and conserve these natural resources, concludes Guy.

For more info about African Honey Bee, visit


Setting up a catchbox.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, April 2016

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