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TAMING `KILLER' BEES HELPS AFRICANS SAVE TREES AND MAKE MONEY FROM HONEY

Karin Ostertag glances nervously at a forest clearing dotted with 20 beehives, each the home of 40,000 to 80,000 African "killer" bees. She hugs herself and bites her lip.

"Don't speak," she says to me. "Walk quietly. If they come after you, run as fast as you can and find a dark place to hide - in a house or under a car."Her advice comes from experience - she has been chased a half-mile twice by the bees who stung her several times before she found cover. She frowns and says, reluctantly: "Let's go."

We take a step into one of the most unusual reforestation projects in West Africa. Ostertag, a native of Switzerland, and her French partner, Alain Ratie, are in their sixth year of a lifetime plan, they say, to help reforest central Benin by taming the cantankerous African honey bee.

Currently funded by Catholic Relief Services, this phase of their project will put 500 hives in five villages, reforest barren soils worn out by years of growing maize, and more than double the income of the families who tend the hives.

Behind the project, says Ostertag, is the lesson of how even something as simple as a reforestation project must fit into the mores of the local community or fail.

The story begins with a "bokonnen," the religious leader and soothsayer of Agoua, a village in hot, dry central Benin. Agoua's 1,500 people live in homes made of wood poles and dried red mud. They have no electricity or running water. Each family makes an average of $400 a year from selling maize, cotton, cashew nuts and mangos.

Several years ago, the bokonnen, Tata Soumonin, a reed-thin man in his 70s, read his own fortune. He saw that strangers would ask him to work the village's land, and the community would profit.

Benin nomads who specialize in growing maize appeared and offered to grow crops in exchange for planting oil palm trees for future harvest by the villagers. The nomads cleared the forest, grew corn for three years, until the soil was depleted of nutrients, and departed without planting anything. The villagers were left with used-up fields pushing up useless weeds.

Several months later, Ratie arrived. Through an interpreter, he asked Soumonin for permission to introduce beehives and reforest the bare fields. Soumonin eventually agreed. It was a measure of his caution, however, that he continued to speak through an interpreter for two years, until one day, in 1985, he surprised Ratie by speaking French, the lingua franca of Benin, and Ratie's native tongue.

Soumonin subsequently gave Ratie and Ostertag a 50-year lease on 250 acres that they named Tobe, and on which they have built a tree nursery, a honey-processing facility and workshop to build and maintain their beehives.

Beekeeping isn't new to the Beninois. But their traditional methods of robbing honey from the hives may have helped induce the bees into becoming bad-tempered nomads. People drive the bees from their hives with fire and smoke. Not only does this anger the bees, who then must find another hive to survive, but the honey has a burnt taste. In addition, the bees became shy about storing substantial amounts of honey in the hives.

Ratie, who comes from a beekeeping family, thought a little patience would revive honey production and help bring back the forest. He put hives in a quiet part of the forest, and baited them with honey to attract the bees. He left the hives alone for two years so that the bees would become secure enough to begin storing honey again. Then he moved the hives at night to a clearing so that he could easily harvest the honey.

Ratie paid for the project himself for the first two years. Once he was certain his methods would work, he obtained a $20,000 grant from the Canadian Embassy in 1985 to continue the experiment. That was followed by a $12,000 grant from the French government for honey-processing equipment, another $20,000 from the Canadians to build a workshop and hire people. With the current three-year $80,000 grant from Catholic Relief Services, five villages to manage the project, a carpenter to build and distribute the beehives to the villages, Ratie and Ostertag are training beekeepers and continuing to expand their tree nursery.

For Ratie and Ostertag, the beekeeping project is a lifetime commitment, and they are in no hurry - as are some development workers who spend only two years in a country and wonder why their projects are abandoned after they leave - to push their ideas faster than the community will accept them. They spent months consulting Suomonin on how to set up the structure for the villagers to manage the hives. They waited until Soumonin had consulted all the elders in the five villages in which the hives were to be placed. "It is important that this grows slowly," said Ostertag.

Eventually, they decided to give 10 hives to each of 10 families, from which one young man would be trained to work with the bees. Half the income from the sale of honey goes to the family; half goes to the beekeeper. To maintain the social structure, each young man is paired with an elder to advise him. The young men and elders come to Tobe to discuss tree-planting and beekeeping.

"We wanted to continue the traditional way of life" in which elders maintain their position of authority and respect, Ostertag said.

So far, Ostertag and Ratie have reforested 50 acres with thousands of fast-growing acacia and eucalyptus. For each of the past six years, they have produced 10,000 seedlings from their nursery. They and the villagers also are planting slower-growing indigenous species to avoid ending up with a monoculture of trees.

They have placed 70 beehives among the trees on their property and around Agoua. The bees need an area of trees four kilometers in diameter around their clearing to produce 40 pounds of honey a year.

In the workshop, where Daouda Gbedomon builds the hives out of teak wood commonly grown in Benin, lizards on the walls lunge after some bees spinning around the hives being repaired. The lizards are only this brave when few bees are around. They spit out the bees and return later to eat them once their stingers have dropped off.

As tame as these African bees have become, Ratie and Ostertag still must take precautions. In the clearings, the hives' openings face away from the path on which humans approach, so that the bees won't smell or see them. The openings also face away from the rising and setting sun so the bees won't be overheated. The hives are moved only at night, when the bees are quiet, but the beekeepers still must wear a heavy canvas suit, a sturdy bee-net hat, shoes and socks for protection.

"In Europe, Alain works with the bees in shorts, and without any covering," said Ostertag. "Here you have to cover yourself. Alain says they know when you are afraid. He is not afraid and has never been stung."

The villagers sell the honey for $2.50 per pound to Ratie and Ostertag. With an average income of $400 a year, each family can derive an additional $500 from the sale of honey from 10 hives. Ratie and Ostertag process and sell the honey locally and in Cotonou, Benin's largest city. Eventually, they also plan to sell the wax to craftspeople who use it to make batiks, and to European cosmetic companies.

Suomonin says his fortune has finally come true. The money from the honey helps farmers help their families and improve the house, as well as to have more wives. (Many of Benin's people are polygamous, and an indication of wealth is the number of wives a man can support.)

But more important, Suomonin said, the village is getting its trees back. "By keeping bees, we won't kill the trees," he said. "This is good to show also to young people so that they will keep the forest."