Part VII: Others[edit | edit source]

As noted in the preface, this report by no means exhausts all the microlivestock possibilities. Lack of space and time precludes discussion of creatures such as edible insects, snails, worms, frogs, turtles, and bats, which in some regions are highly regarded foods. Similarly, we have not included fish, shrimp, and other aquatic life.

This is not to say that these are less worthy of consideration. The decision to leave them out was arbitrary, but with several recent breakthroughs in tropical beekeeping it seems prudent to include bees. Accordingly, the final chapter of this book describes the smallest livestock of all.

Bees are one of the most promising microlivestock. They forage on flowers that are otherwise little utilized and produce honey, wax, and other products of high value. They are important as plant pollinators and can greatly increase the production of some crops. Bees can be kept virtually anywhere with little disruption of other activities, and they are easily available.

35 Bees[edit | edit source]


Of all the livestock reviewed in this publication, bees are the smallest, the least demanding of space, probably the most familiar, and perhaps the most easily adapted to worldwide rural development efforts. For all that, however, they are an often forgotten component in agricultural programs. This is unfortunate because bees can be particularly valuable to tropical countries, providing pollination of crops, useful products, and a premium source of income.

Almost every village in every tropical country traditionally has had a beekeeper or two. Most use "seat-of-the-pants" methods and "rustic" hives, and this generally leads to low yields and inefficiencies. Today, numerous innovative methods and appropriate equipment are coming available. Many are still not widely known; however, their importance is slowly being recognized. Indeed, some developing countries are already turning bees into a valued natural resource.

For example, in less than 10 years Kenya has become self-sufficient in honey production and - despite increased local consumption - is now exporting. In seven years, Papua New Guinea has met its local honey requirements and now also exports its surplus. In only four years, Thailand increased yearly production from practically nothing to more than 1,000 tons. In Brazil, beekeeping is more widespread and production greater than before the outbreak of the African honey bee. These achievements can be largely attributed to the promotion of innovative equipment, modern beekeeping techniques, and extension support for small-scale beekeepers.


Honey bees are generally easily recognized and need no description here. The major species and subspecies are all roughly similar in appearance and size.


Among several hundred species of bees that store honey and pollen in harvestable amounts, only two "social" species, Apis mellifera and Apis cerana, produce multiple combs and can be kept in hives.' Given adequate forage and proper management, they can build up a honey surplus that can be harvested without harming their colonies.

Apis mellifera, the most widely distributed and exploited honey bee, comes from Europe and Africa. The subspecies from Europe (especially the Italian type, A. mellifera ligustica) is normally preferred because of its docility and high honey yields. It is now the predominant honey bee throughout the temperate zones of Europe, North America, Australasia, and China.

Of the many subspecies in Africa, A. mellifera adansonii and A. mellifera scutellata have the widest native ranges. The latter was accidently released in Brazil in 1957. It has become naturalized and has dominated the European bees formerly kept by beekeepers. By l990, it had spread northwards to the southernmost areas of the United States and southwards deep into Argentina.

The docile Asian hive bee, A. cerana, is found in Asia from the Middle East to Japan and as far south as Indonesia. Although it produces much less honey per hive than A. mellifera, its overall production in many Southeast Asian countries may be greater.


Honey bees do not face extinction. However, genetic diversity is disappearing due to loss of habitat, insecticides, displacement by massproduced, genetically uniform queens and exotic breeds, destructive harvesting, and the spread of diseases and pests such as protozoans, bacteria, insects, and mites.


Honey bees can exist in locations from deserts to rainforests and from near the Arctic to the tropics. They occur wherever there is nectar, pollen, tree resin (for nest building), shelter, and a little water. Heat, drought, and especially rain and humidity may curtail their activities, but a well-managed colony can survive periods of extreme adversity.


Honey bees live in rigidly hierarchical colonies. Normally there is a single queen. After mating, she begins laying hundreds of eggs a day. Those that are fertilized become sterile females, called workers; those that remain unfertilized develop into males (drones), whose only role is to fertilize future queens.

After two or three years the queen, worn-out, starts laying fewer and fewer eggs, and the colony may replace her. At that time a few female larvae are raised on royal jelly, a nutritious, little-understood secretion that causes them to develop into queens.

Workers perform different tasks as they mature. Young ones tend the queen, guard the hive, and raise the larvae. Older ones, comprising the vast majority of a colony's population, gather pollen and nectar and water. Pollen provides the protein and fats, and the nectar, converted into honey in the bee's body, provides carbohydrates to feed the colony.


Honey bee activities are dictated by weather, availability of food, genetics, and the overall strength of the colony. They are mediated by chemical interactions between the queen and the workers that control almost all behavior.

While the Asian and European hive bees are relatively docile, most of the African subspecies are unpredictable and may defend their colonies in great numbers and with great persistence. The threat of "killer bees" has been greatly exaggerated, however. Africans have provided them nests and hives - and harvested their honey - for thousands of years.

Occasionally, large numbers of the bees in a colony split off from their nest or hive. They usually cluster on a nearby tree or building, calmly waiting for "scouts" to find a suitable new home. These homeless swarms can be captured and will readily move into a hive- the simplest and cheapest way for beekeepers to acquire a colony.


Honey and beeswax are two of nature's best known and most valuable products. Honey can be employed in hundreds of foods. It is widely used in baking because, in addition to its flavor, it retains moisture better than sugar or syrup, and the product keeps longer. Honey-based alcoholic beverages are popular in many parts of the world.

Beeswax also is used in many products, including candles, lubricants, polish, waterproofings, soaps, cosmetics, and electronics. Beeswax can be locally important for ´'lost-wax" metal-casting and sculptures as well as batik-dyed clothing.

Both bee pollen and royal jelly are used in cosmetics and can be eaten. Bee venom is used medicinally, particularly in Europe and the developing world. Bee larvae are eaten raw or fried in many parts of Asia and Africa and are considered a delicacy.


Keeping bees means managing a colony so that it produces surplus honey or wax. Specifically this requires:

- Providing a suitable hive;

- Obtaining bees by collecting a swarm, transferring a wild colony, or purchasing a colony complete with an active queen;

- Maintaining the colony free from natural enemies in an area that allows it to produce excess honey; and

- Harvesting the excess honey without weakening the colony or causing it to flee (abscond).


Few other livestock enterprises require less capital, less space, or less attention. Moreover, scarcely any other provides higher quality, more marketable products.

Beekeeping is a respected and traditional activity in most areas of the world. It promotes self-reliance and requires little, if any, land or money. It is an easy-entry cottage industry that can be started with minimal equipment or training. It can be done by any member of a family as it requires no special strength or size. It is especially appropriate for increasing women's income in the many areas where men are away working.

Beekeeping is suited to remote areas where many agricultural enterprises are at a competitive disadvantage because their products are bulky and far from the markets. Honey, wax, pollen, and other bee products can all be sold far from their point of origin, have high monetary value for their weight, and generally find a ready market. Local honeys often command premium prices (in part because many of them are considered medicinal). In addition, beekeeping encourages people to remain in rural areas rather than move to the city in search of an income.

Pollination increases the productivity of many crops, and therefore a few hives can boost local food production. By rotating hives among farmers' fields and orchards, a beekeeper performs a valuable service.

Beekeeping is also an important adjunct to reforestation and desert reclamation projects. It can provide income during the long wait for the trees to reach marketable size. Many forests are potential reservoirs of honey and other products. In some cases, the bees also enhance the fruitfulness and standing value of forests. They also increase pollination in tree-seed orchards and tree nurseries. And in newly established forests, bees improve reseeding potential.


So many hives have been developed in recent years that a design now exists for almost any level of expertise. One of the most important for Third World beekeeping is the top-bar hive. This crate-like box, derived from an ancient Greek design, incorporates modern beekeeping principles but adds the innovation of sloping sides. Beneath its lid are removable boards (top bars) from which the bees hang the combs (because the sides are sloping the bees do not attach the edges of the comb to them). By lifting a top bar, the comb can be inspected and handled - and the honey harvested - with little disturbance to the colony.

This simple hive can make beekeeping accessible to even the poorest people. It is easy to build and use, and can be locally constructed from scrap lumber. It is well suited for raising most types of honey bees.

More elaborate and productive is the African long hive. In addition to having top bars, this square-sided box has removable frames within which the bees build their comb.

The most elaborate is the Langstroth hive - the type most common in temperate zones.* These yield the most honey. They can be made only where there are facilities for precise carpentry, where durable, nonwarping parts are available, and where there are good extension services to aid and assist beekeepers. Although traditional Langstroth hives are demanding to build and maintain, simplified designs have been created for use in developing countries.


By far the most common bees in the tropics, perhaps in the world, are bees that cannot sting. Their stingers are so akophied as to be essentially nonexistent (but some can deliver a pretty fierce bite). They live in colonies and store their honey in wax pots, some as large as egg cups.

Stingless bees can be abundant. In a two-block area in downtown Panama City, 150 nests have been counted. However, many species depend on trees and their populations are plummeting as more and more tropical forests are felled.

Like honey bees, stingless bees have been "domesticated." For thousands of years in the tropical Americas, Indians have raised them in special hives made out of logs, gourds, clay pots, and other simple containers. Cortes reported in 1519 that Indians on the island of Cozumel, the now popular tourist spot off the east coast of Yucatan, practiced beekeeping. That was almost 300 years before the European honeybee was introduced. A popular Mayan drink was honey wine, and Mayan beekeepers carved stone earplugs to keep these bees out of their ears.

Honey from stingless bees has less sugar than normal honey. However, it is usually more tasty. It is used throughout the tropics: the Americas, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia, for instance. Normally, the nests are just robbed, which devastates the bees because the queen cannot fly, and when she is disturbed the colony dies. In some areas people open a little hole in the nest. By putting in a plug, they can then harvest honey a couple of times a year without destroying the colony.

Today, a few scientists are reconsidering stingless beekeeping. In the state of Maranhao in Brazil, an area of crushing poverty, biologist Warwick Kerr is harnessing stingless bees. He began after learning that peasants were spending a third of their meager incomes buying sugar. As part of his experiments, he keeps 60 hives stacked in his garage on the outskirts of the city of San Luis. (A notable feature of these bees is that there is no prohibition against keeping them in populated areas.)

Kerr has found that stingless bees can be made to produce well. After years of experimenting with different-sized boxes, he can now obtain more than 4.5 lifers of honey per hive per year. He reports that the stingless bees are easy to maintain, and can be raised by poor peoole without land or equipment.


Compared to raising four-footed livestock, beekeeping is inexpensive and fairly trouble free, but it is not without problems. Many things can go wrong, and include, for example:

- Losses. Bees are susceptible to various predators, pests, and diseases. Although ways to avoid or control most afflictions are available, once a colony becomes infested it may have to be destroyed.

- Theft. Hives or combs - usually kept in secluded areas - that are full of honey are tempting targets and may be stolen.

- Swarming and absconding. Some or all of the bees may leave a hive and start a new nest, taking even the honey with them.2

- Bad management. Beekeeping requires certain skills and knowledge, and sometimes frequent attention (such as when the colony is stressed, diseased, or swarming).

- Lack of equipment. Beekeepers need hives, smokers (to quiet and repel the bees), hive tools, and - advisable but not absolutely necessary - gloves and a veil.

- Inadequate storage. Some areas lack the knowledge or the bottles in which to store liquid honey.3

- Pesticides and herbicides. Nectar- and pollen-collecting bees are vulnerable to insecticides, which farmers may apply (often inappropriately) at the time their crops are flowering. Herbicides can destroy important sources of bee forage.

- Neighborhood concerns. Bees can sting people and livestock. Although wild bees (and other insects) are the principal culprits, the beekeeper is often blamed.

- Stressful conditions. When rainfall, aridity, heat, or cold are excessive, bees often cannot produce surplus honey.


Surprisingly, much remains to be learned about the natural science of bees. Although some of the research requires sophisticated equipment and facilities, much can (or must) be performed locally by beekeepers because many factors - such as colony behavior, foraging habits, and microclimatic adaptation - depend on the local conditions. This research may include the following:

- Adaptation. The provision of locally adapted bee varieties is an important basis for developing advanced beekeeping. This can be done by selecting an appropriate local queen. Further, local breeding of queens and workers lessens the probability of importing exotic diseases and pests. Recent developments promise to move the mass production of queens and workers from the realm of high technology to common practice.4

- Integration. Continued developments in beekeeping cannot succeed without research, promotion, education, training, and extension services. These are essential for integrating beekeeping with agriculture and reforestation efforts. Thus, descriptions of agronomic plants should always include pollination requirements as well as nectar and pollen potentials. Planting nectar- and pollen-producing firewood species would increase the number of bees, which would in turn help ensure forest survival.

- Bee plants. There is still much to be understood about the relative qualities that different plants bring to beekeeping. Recently, many valuable bee-forage plants have been identified.5 These deserve special consideration in any reforestation or beautification projects. Broad introduction of these plants may also encourage beekeeping that could produce high-value "specialty" honeys or ensure more continuous production of honey. There may also be a place for "bee farms," where every plant is bee forage.

- New bee species. Nontraditional species of Apis as well as other members of the bee family (such as Anthophora, Bombus, Megachilae, Nomia, Osmia, Xylocopa, and especially Trigona and Melipona, which are stingless) should be studied to determine their role in pollination and - for some species - their further exploitation for honey.

FA info icon.svg Angle down icon.svg Page data
Part of Little-known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future
Keywords farming
SDG SDG15 Life on land
Authors Board on Science and Technology for International Development National Research Council
License CC-BY-SA-3.0
Language English (en)
Translations Russian
Related 1 subpages, 17 pages link here
Aliases Micro-livestock: Little-known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future 10
Impact 480 page views
Created March 13, 2009 by Oorxax
Modified December 5, 2023 by Felipe Schenone
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