Livestock Research for Rural Development 21 (11) 2009 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD News

Citation of this paper

Indigenous knowledge and its relevance for sustainable beekeeping development: a case study in the Highlands of Southeast Ethiopia

Solomon Bogale

Department of Animal Sciences, Mada Walabu University, PO Box 84, Bale Robe, Ethiopia


The study was conducted in the highlands of Southeast Ethiopia to assess the indigenous beekeeping knowledge and practices as well as to document for further research and development in the sector. Four districts were selected and a total of 120 beekeeper households were interviewed using a pre-tested semi-structured questionnaire. Information was collected on household characteristics, indigenous knowledge and practices on beekeeping and honeybee production systems.


Beekeeping systems in the area is totally traditional. Majority (82.5%) of the beekeepers have little knowledge on biology of bees. Colour, hair length, body size and behaviour were the main criteria considered by the beekeepers to classify honeybees. About 65% of the beekeepers fed honeybees with flour of roasted grains and solution of either sugar or honey during dearth periods. Honeybees are also supplemented with water during dry season. Pests and predators of honeybees are protected totally by implementing traditional means. Almost all (99.2%) of the beekeepers reported that honey badger was the most damaging predator of honeybees in the area. Several traditional practices were implemented to overcome the damage caused by this honey badger as well as other pest and predators.


Even though some practices need further study, indigenous knowledge plays a significant role for the development of bees and maintenance of beekeeping activities in the highlands of southeast Ethiopia whereby the contribution of the modern technology to the sector is almost nil.

Key words: bee colony, beekeeper, honeybees, household, traditional practices


Local farmers have acquired knowledge from generations experience and experimental, as they had adapted their agricultural systems using limited resources under harsh and insecure conditions. Understanding such knowledge is essential to understand local realities of farmers and can be critical for the success or failure of agricultural development (WinklerPins and Sandor 2003).


A modern science expands its knowledge and continues to draw from the important resource of local indigenous people (Brooks 2008). According to Araya et al (2006), indigenous people keep on transferring innovative type of information from generation to generation. The role of indigenous knowledge is significant for the improvement of beekeeping sector (Saville and Upadhaya 2006). This is because traditional beekeepers know their own bees and beekeeping conditions better than most outsiders.


Traditional beekeeping has the oldest and richest practices which have carried out by the people for years in Ethiopia (Fichtl and Adi 1994). Beekeeping using bark and basket hives have long been part of the subsistence economy of people in the area. Honey hunting is practiced by many people on an opportunistic base in the forest dominated localities in the region (Solomon 2007). On the other hand, beekeeping can be described as a way of life initially practiced by small group of people and the skill passed on from generation to generation within families. The traditional beekeepers work within a framework set by the subsistence need of the household. Besides, the contribution of indigenous knowledge to beekeeping activities is very significant since the society accumulate knowledge against production constraints for several years. Hence, it is useful to analyze the gap and document the available indigenous knowledge for the purpose of utilization and improvement. Therefore, this study was undertaken;


Description of the study area


The study was conducted in Agarfa, Dinsho, Goba and Sinana districts of Bale highlands, southeast Ethiopia. The areas have a mild sub-tropical highland climate with altitudinal range of 2000 - 4377 meters above sea level. The cooler highlands, Dinshoa nd Goba areas, have an annual mean minimum and maximum temperature of 2oC and 20oC, respectively (Williams 2002). Temperature tends to be more severe with a high probability of frost during the night time particularly at higher altitude of Goba and Dinsho areas. The main rainy season extends from August to December and the short rainy season stretches from April to July. The dry season cover from December to March. The precipitation during the main rainy season ranges from 270 to 560 mm and that of the short rainy season is from 250 to 560 mm (SARC 2001). Floral diversity extends from Sub- tropical to Alpine regions, which provides the most appropriate environment for regulating and providing year- round foraging to honeybee populations. In general, availability of this diverse flora with cross cutting, overlapping and breaking nectar flow offer best conditions for perpetuation and multiplication and determining migratory pattern of beekeeping in the Bale highlands of southeast Ethiopia. 


Sampling techniques, data collection and statistical analysis


Four representative districts were selected using purposive sampling techniques. Then, 120 beekeepers were randomly drawn based on the proportion of the number of households’ possessing beehives in the past and at the moment. Besides, checklist was prepared and key informants were interviewed.


Secondary and primary sources of data were used. Secondary data were collected from zonal and districts’ Offices of Agriculture and Rural Development. Then, semi-structures questionnaire was prepared and pre-tested with few beekeepers. The enumerators were trained on methods of data collection and interviewing techniques. Information was collected on beekeeper household characteristics, indigenous beekeeping knowledge and practices and honeybee production systems. With the help of key informants, indigenous beekeeping practices were thoroughly assessed.


The collected data were coded and grouped for analysis. Descriptive statistics were computed using the Statistical Packages for Social Sciences (SPSS) 11.0 for Windows (SPSS 2001).


Results and discussion 

Socio-economic characteristics


Age, religion, level of education, family size, land holding and beekeeping experiences of the respondents were indicated in Table 1.

Table 1.  Summary of household characteristics in the highlands of southeast Ethiopia




Respondents, %

Age of household, years

20 - 30












Household Religion










Level of education




Basic education



Grade 1 - 4



Grade  5 - 8



Grade 9 - 12



Family size, No

≤  2



3 - 5



6 - 10



> 11



Land holding, ha

< 0.5



0.5 - 1



1.1 -  2



>  2



Experience, years

<  5



6 - 10



11 - 15



>  15



In this study, all the interviewed beekeepers were male. This is because beekeeping is mainly the activity of male in Bale highlands of southeast Ethiopia. This is in line with reports of Hartmann (2004) who noted beekeeping as the man’s job in Ethiopia. Majority (60%) of the respondents were Muslim where as about 37.5 and 2.5% of them were Orthodox and Protestant, respectively.


The age of the respondents ranged from 22 to 82 years with a mean of 53. Majority (80%) of beekeepers were more than 40 years old whereby about 48% were above 60 years. This shows beekeeping is the activity mainly undertaken by older people indicating the need of documentation of indigenous knowledge that may or may not be transferred to the new generation. Most of the beekeepers in this study receive adult education. About 65% of the respondents did not attend the formal education in their life. Very few (5.8%) of beekeepers had got a chance to receive high school education. Therefore, 25.8% of the beekeepers were unable to read and write. This shows that traditional beekeeping practices are based on informal opportunities and an individual’s level of formal education does not matter as most of the beekeepers in this study are uneducated older people. This is inline with Gichora (2003) who noted the insignificant role of level of education in the traditional beekeeping.


The average family size per beekeeper was 8.8 persons. About 51.7% of the respondents had a family size between 6-10 persons where as a family size more than 11 persons was reported by about 10.8% of the respondents. About 32% of the family members fell between 0 -14 years age categories that are to be unproductive in agricultural activities. The mean land holding per beekeeper was about 1.5 hectares. Some (15.8%) of the beekeepers had less than one hectare of land and very few (7.5%) of them had owned more than 3 hectares of land. This is probably due to the fact that households with limited plot of land may invest more on beekeeping activity since the sector is relatively less land-resource demanding. Majority of the beekeepers (65.8%) had exercised beekeeping for more than 15 years. Some of the respondents (5%) have practiced beekeeping for more than 30 years.


Honeybee production systems and beekeeping trends


Management practices as well as types and level of technology were used to identify the beekeeping systems in the area. Based on these criteria, honeybee production systems in the study area is totally traditional. Even though there were introduction of modern beehives in the area, it was not put into production due to the knowledge gap. Therefore, none of the respondents have used either the intermediate or modern beehives in the study area. None of them had also received training on beekeeping.


Backyard beekeeping systems played a significant role followed by the mixed forest and backyard beekeeping (Table 2).

Table 2.  Honeybee production systems and beekeeping activities


Number of beekeepers


Honey hunting  + Beekeeping



Forest beekeeping



Forest beekeeping + Backyard Beekeeping



Traditional Backyard Beekeeping



Intermediate/Modern Beekeeping Systems






NA=not available

About 5% of the respondents practiced honey hunting along with beekeeping. Solomon (2007) also mentioned that honey hunting is very common in the forest dominated areas of the region. The average bee colonies possessed by the beekeepers was 10 (ranging from 3 - 27 bee colonies). Some (10%) of the beekeepers possess more than 20 bee colonies. However, Kebede and Lemma (2007) reported an average of 6 colonies per head for the middle Rift Valley Region of Ethiopia. Higher figure in the current study may be related to more availability of bee forages and conducive climate for beekeeping.


However, the change in the farming systems that is the shift from livestock to crop dominant mixed crop- livestock systems is becoming a threat to the beekeeping activities in the highlands of southeast Ethiopia. Nearly (98.5%) all the beekeepers responded that there were ample bee forages before decades in the area. This is probably due to the expansion of cereal crops and intensive application of herbicides that suppress the growth of bee plants in the region. ICRA (2001) also reported that expansion of cereal monocropping affects other agricultural sectors in the highlands of southeast Ethiopia.


Traditional knowledge on the biology of honeybees


Majority (82.5%) of the beekeepers have little knowledge on biology of bees. This is in agreement with the report of Fischer (1993) that noted a similar case in Miombo Savanna woodlands of south-central Africa. However, for the adoption of more advanced technology, one should have a good grasp of bee biology for better bee management. Gichora (2003) also reported a similar position for the Kenyan bee farmers.


Around 95.8% of the respondents grouped honeybee colony into three casts, namely, the queen (locally known as Moti), the drone (Wabe) and the workers (Hojjettu) bees. Worker bees were considered to be the active members of the colony. Taking the colour into consideration, most (80%) of the beekeepers reported the red (faqi or borama) and the black honeybee types in the region. Some (20%) of the households added black spot honeybees too. The name faqi is given to the unproductive and aggressive types of bees. The red- coloured were reported to be wild bees and mainly obtained from the stone caves. Black types of honeybees are, on the other hand, believed to be productive, less aggressive, and stable or reluctant to absconding. Depending on the hair types, about 95% of the households identified two types of bees; the hairy (which is also called dabbaso) and the non- hairy types.


Traditional honeybee feeding practices


During dearth period when there is little honeybee forage, beekeepers provided supplementary feeds. About 65% of the respondents provided flour of roasted grain of barely (konso or ashaaro) as well as that of maize, bean and pea in order to strengthen the colony for the next season. Mare (2002) also indicated that beekeepers used to feed honeybees with pollen substitute such as pea, chickpea or bean flour during dearth period and heavy rainy season. Besides, majority (85%) of the beekeepers gave solution of either sugar or honey to the bees by putting either grass or stone in the solution a container in order to avoid the damage during feeding. Almost all of the beekeepers (99.2%) provided water to bees during dry season. External feeding and watering system is practiced. Hence, these traditions help the beekeeping activity through alleviating the production constraints in the region.


Traditional swarm management practices


Majority (87.5%) of the beekeepers reported lack of space as the main causes of swarming while 12.5% of them put the inherent behavior of the bees as the major reason of swarming. About 83.5% beekeepers make use of some indicators to control swarming of southeastern Ethiopia. First, sound of the queen is identified during the night. If there is a piping sound by queen then the colony is toward swarming. And secondly, household beekeepers are looking for the development of the queen cell (agara, mana moti or mucha dhaba). If queen cells are too many then the colony is ready to swarm. In the third place, they try to identify the overall sound and movement of the colony during the night. It is thought that when honeybees are on brood rearing, the colony’s sound is becoming restless and vibrating type as per the responses of 66.5% beekeepers.


According to the respondents, in every fortnight queen cell breaks out or queen emerges especially during honey flow period. All of the interviewed households reported that colony under swarming spent on nearby trees for about three days until scout bees (kannisa sontu) identify a permanent home. Spraying soil and water on the swarming bee colonies is practiced by most (76.7%) of the beekeepers. This act might retard movement of bees by inducing confusion so that the swarming-colony lands on the nearby branches of trees. About 37.5% of the beekeepers control swarming of bee colonies by cutting some of bee broods and by completely removing queen cells from the hive. This gives bees to have enough space and produce honey than swarming. Alternatively, uniting part of strong colony with weak one can be also practiced by some (25%) respondents. This is done by spraying either fresh milk especially that of goat or solution of sugar or honey on both colonies. Accordingly, both colonies unite peacefully by licking each other. Very few (4.2%) of the beekeepers indicated smoking bone of mule during the night also help to prevent swarming through retarding colony multiplication. According to the respondents, smoked colonies are believed to be productive.


Baiting hives management


The use of baiting hives to catch swarm is part of the traditional beekeeping practices. According to the interviewed beekeepers, baiting hives are prepared and smoked very well using barks of Ekebergia capensi (sombo or anonu). Besides, about 54.2% of beekeepers used honeycomb and body soap inner part of baiting hives. Some (10%) of beekeepers put honeycombs in the hive and spray perfume to attract scout bees. Similarly, hives are smoked gum (hixana) to magnetize scout bees as per the response of 30% of the beekeepers.


Most (79.2%) of the respondents put baiting hives on braches of trees in the forests, valleys and around river banks to catch the swarm. However, some (20.8%) of them did not take their bating hives out of their apiaries for such purposes. According to Kerealem et al (2006) and Kebede and Lemma (2007), most of the beekeepers in the central Ethiopia had got their bee colonies by trapping swarms using baiting hives.


Traditional bee colony transfer and hive inspection


Colony transfer is preferably undertaken during honey flow period by the beekeepers in the area. Bee colonies were transferred either from baiting hives or old hives to the new hives. Initially, queen is identified before colony transfer. After identification, the queen is put in cage made from bamboo tree. But, most (80%) of the interviewed beekeepers practiced clipping or cutting of the queen’s wing to stop absconding of the colony from the desired hive. This practice is very common since beekeepers’ knowledge on bee biology is inadequate. However, such practice could have a negative effect if the queen is virgin since insect mates in the air.


In order to transfer bee colony to a new hive, about 60% of the beekeepers bring occupied hive and the new hives end to end. Thereafter, the adjacent ends of the hives are fixed with clothes. Then, using smoke they used to drive the bees from the old hive to the new one, followed by the evacuation of bees from the old hive. Finally, old hive is picked while the new hive is closed from the opened side. On the other hand, some (30%) of the  beekeepers transfer bee colonies by putting the new hive on tree and shaking bees from the baiting or old hive on the cloth which is placed at the bottom of the tree. Beekeepers responded that shaking of the bees from the old hive is followed by spraying water gently on bees to reduce their movement or retard their flight capacity.


Most (95%) of the beekeepers inspected their hives externally every week while very few (2.5%) of them practiced internal hive inspection during honey flow period.  Although internal inspection is difficult, the hives are opened from behind on one end and observed for disturbances. Different authors (Kerealem 2006; Kebede and Lemma 2007) reported that farmers in Ethiopia do not commonly practice internal hive inspection due to the difficulty of the manipulation of traditional hives. Gathering of honeybees around the entrance is an indication of swarming in the near future.  


Traditional bee hives and equipment


Almost all of the tools and equipment used in the traditional beekeeping system are made from local materials like wood, clay and sewing of pennisetum (grass type). The major traditional bee equipment Gonofa (sieve like material made from pennisetum whereby clothes are fixed on it and used as bee veils), Girgira (traditional smoker made from clay), Halbe (local knife which is used to open the hive and cut honey comb during harvesting), Facho (tail part of skin used as bee brush) and Togogo (traditional bee hives made from animal dung, clay and pennisetum sewing).


About 90% of the respondents grouped hives into four depending on the types of materials the hives are made from. These were: those hives that made from timber and barks of tree; climbers and bamboo trees in association with stick woods; cow dung (Figure 1) and clay, and households’ flour and grain storage materials made from pennisetum by women and converted into hives when needed arise.

Figure 1.  Traditional hive made from cow dung and with grass and plastic cover

About 60% of the beekeepers reported that hives made from animal dung are preferred by bees. This is could be due to stabilization of internal hive temperature by such types of hives.


Podocarpus gracilior, Hygenia abyssinica, Apodytes dimidiate, acacia species and bamboo were the major trees that are preferred for beehive making in the area. About 95% of the beekeepers responded that hives made from these trees are durable as well as preferred by honeybees. Most (90%) of them responded that not all the trees are used for hive making. Some of them can be damaged by the wood-eater worms (xinxana). Cylindrical cross-section hives are made of hollow-out logs of trees. This is also reported by Saville and Upadhaya (2006) in the Jumila of west Nepal region.


Beekeepers living in the forest dominated areas make hives from hollowed-out logs and barks formed into a cylinder (Figure 2).

Figure 2.  Hollowed-out cylindrical log hives

In case of timber-made hives, the thickness depends on the types of timber source. Hives made from woven climbers, bamboos or sticks are covered with grasses to protect either from sun or rain or both to stabilize hive temperature. In some of the cases, beekeepers also used corrugated iron sheet to cover the hives. Mostly, hives are made during dry season and before honey flow periods. A hole is made at the mid- point in one end of the hive. The sole purpose of the hive is to encourage bees to nest in a place accessible to the beekeeper. The bees build their nest inside the hive, just as they would build it in a natural cavity. However, direction and location of the foundation comb is guided by beekeepers in a desirable way during construction of the beehives. In an apiary, about 65% of beekeepers put their hives at different angle to each other to reduce confusion by bees (Figure 3).

Figure 3.  
Apiary site with hives at different orientation to each other

Management of the major pests and predators of honeybees


Major bee enemies mentioned in the highlands of southeast Ethiopia are honey badger (Amaa or hamaagotaa), ants (daganda or xuxi) spiders (dara baftu), mites (balqe), birds (simbirro) and wax moth (Billacha). These are also reported to be the most widespread enemies of bee in the central highlands of Ethiopia (Desalegn and Amsalu 2001). Indigenous protection methods were practiced to control these pests and predators.


Majority (98.8%) of the respondents rapped the corrugated iron sheet on stands of hive to prevent honey badger from climbing. Secondly, bunch of thorny branches is tied on hive stands; therefore, it is not comfortable for the animal to climb. Very few (20%) households protect honey badger by metals and strings (kiyyo) around the entrance of the apiary site through hanging the predator. Generally, modern beekeeping systems in the area are making use of these traditional methods to protect bee enemies.

Ants and mites also cause a significant effect on honey yield since they highly hinders or limits the activity of bees or causes absconding. The effect caused by ants is traditionally protected by spraying ashes under the hives in the apiary and secondly by coating the hive stand with burnt oil as per the responses of 45% of the beekeepers. In order to reduce the damage caused by mites, some (10%) of the beekeepers blow flour of salt onto bees through the entrance of the hives. As a result, the mites are forced to shatter and can no longer stay on the body of bees. By doing this, beekeepers might increase the productivity of bees. Therefore, the contribution traditional practices of honeybee protection are significant for the development of beekeeping sector in the study area.


Honey harvesting and processing methods


Honey is the major hive product but some beekeepers also consider beeswax (gaga), bee brood (jisa), pollen comb (konte), propolis (leya or lele) as the minor bee products. Most (95%) of the beekeepers collect bee products without wearing bee suits during the night. During this period, however, smokes of barks of selected trees are used. Some (3.3%) of the beekeepers believed that smoke generated from the stem of Olea europaea sub-species cuspidata (ejersa) could induce brood rearing. On the other hand, Fichtl and Adi (1994) reported that pollen production by Olea europaea is valuable for strengthening colonies and stimulating brood rearing.


Observations of pollen on the leg of bees help the beekeepers to conclude that bees are on brood rearing. Otherwise, if the legs of bees are free then they are on honey making and hence, there is a possibility to obtain matured honey. About 51.7% of beekeepers insert thin stick or metal into the hive so that they immediately withdraw and look at it. If milky colour comes out with the stick then they concluded that the colony is on brood rearing. But if it is, on the other hand, sweet when tasted and yellow in colour then most (85%) of the beekeepers went for honey harvesting. About 95% of the households responded that the activity of more bees is the symptom of brood rearing while the reverse is the indication of the need for honey harvesting.


In the area, beeswax is often contaminated, discarded or incompletely harvested.  However, majority (80%) of the beekeepers strain honey by putting crude on the sieve and pressing honeycombs down. About 55% of the households put crude honey on white cloth by making small size holes on it. Thereafter, by rotating the cloth in opposite direction from each end to the middle, the tying forces let the pure honey drop down to the container. According to the respondents, the remained residue in the cloth is mixed with water to make a local drink called booka. Finally, beeswax floats over and easily separated from honey after making a drink.


Harvesting of brood comb is a difficult duty as compared to honey as per the response of the beekeeper households. This might be related to the aggressiveness of bees during brood rearing activity. About 45.8% of the beekeepers initiated the honeybees to collect propolis by expanding the entrance of hives whereby bees use propolis to narrow it. Having this, the propolis is collected from the hive entrance.





The author would like to thank beekeeper farmers in Bale highlands of southeast Ethiopia for participating in the study, and sharing their knowledge and the enumerators for their technical assistance. We would also thank Oromia Agricultural Research Institute (OARI) for funding the study and Sinana Agricultural Research Center (SARC) for providing the facility during the period of data collection.



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Received 16 May 2008; Accepted 10 September 2009; Published 1 November 2009

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