Updated: Sep 14, 2021
Beekeeping is a crucial source of income for up 20,000 households in Zambia; the country's organic honey is desired across Africa as well as in China and Europe. However, beekeeping farmers in northern Zambia are terrified by the impending prospect of hunger strikes and lost income; as dry weather spells intensify in the southern region of the continent, honey bees have begun to eat their own honey inside hives. Uncharacteristically strong winds and surging temperatures have forced bees to remain in hiding; farmers say that bees are eating their own produce while cocooned inside. This trend threatens 16 years of carefully crafted livelihoods, and with fewer employment options than men, it may hit women beekeepers particularly severely. “Honey harvesting is a very lucrative pursuit for small-scale farmers in Zambia, many of whom raise hives in rural districts in addition to cattle and crops”, says Zambia's livestock and fisheries minister, Ms. Nkandu Luo.
Zambia is still a poor country. The World Bank reports that, in 2015, 58% of Zambians earned less than $1.90 per day, below the international poverty line – this compares to 41% across Sub-Saharan Africa. However, Zambia has cultivated rich trade networks that have bolstered the export of honey, particularly its sought-after organic honey, as far as China, South Africa and EU, according to Ms. Nkandu Luo. She says that 20,000 entrepreneurs are involved in the trade due to its low upfront investment requirements. Zambia is one of only five African countries that export honey to the EU, and because of the purported health benefits of tropical plant-based honeys as well as a burst of foreign investment, such exports have grown by 700% in the past five years, reaching €1.3 million. “The success of Zambia's natural honey is such that, in 2017, 11% of all natural honey imports into South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, came from Zambia”, says Wandile Sihlobo, an economist at the Agriculture Business Chamber of South Africa. Creating a sustainable human honey-bee alliance is critical to diversifying household income sources in an economy overly dependent on traditional copper-mining.
Buyers weigh farmers' honey.
Hot weather sours taste
However, Zambia is one of the African countries expected to warm faster than the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with more intense heatwaves, hotter nights and record-low rainfalls expected by the end of the 21st century. Between 1960 and 2003, Zambia’s average annual temperature rose by 1.3 °C, and rainfall decreased by 2.3% each decade. A Caritas study reports that Zambia is currently in the throes of the worst drought in 40 years, with 40% of children under five years old grappling with malnutrition and stunted growth as ferocious hot weather hinders the planting of vital food crops. “In recent years, the rainy season has become shorter, marked by more frequent droughts. When rains fall, they do so with greater intensity and tend to cause floods”, says Kennedy Banda, a senior forestry officer with Zambia's fisheries ministry. “The climate is utterly confusing and alarming.”
In 2005, Zambia's fisheries ministry began training honey farmers. In a country so full of virgin savanna forests rich in the diverse plant species needed for bees to thrive, honey was an obvious choice. With low reliance on water, electricity or pesticides and a growing global demand for organic honey, motivated farmers have been able to compete with more expensive Chinese and South African competitors.
“The climate is utterly confusing and alarming.”
Development organisations in Zambia even found the number of participants in beekeeping training schemes exceeding their targets, and in the 16 years since the scheme began, these farms have produced honey profitably for domestic consumption and export . Many of the trainees are women who go on to train other women beekeepers, as they are the majority dwellers in rural households involved in the trade. Meanwhile, the men troop to cities or mines to find other types of work. With the support of the Enhanced Integrated Framework, a network of Western donor countries that works with civil society and governments in least developed countries to promote trade as an engine for decreasing poverty, Zambia's commerce ministry and the SNV Netherlands Development Organization exceeded the target of training 5,000 beekeepers in modern apiary management, reaching 6,580 beekeepers.
The decrease in bee honey is therefore keenly felt in all districts, but the effect is particularly acute in Zambia's Muchinga province; beekeepers in the Mafinga and Isoka districts say that they are distressed that a warming climate is threatening their investments in honey production. “Unexpected strong winds and high temperatures have caused bees to refuse to come out of hives. We fear huge losses, as they are eating their own produce”, says Mr. Lenwick Nyondo, the Chairperson of the local Muleya Beekeepers Association in Mafinga District, an association representing hundreds of honey farmers.
Kennedy Banda, a state forestry officer with the Zambia Ministry of Fisheries, attributes this peculiar behaviour to a variety of reasons. “We now have a hint from studies at the University of Cordoba, Spain, that hot weather destroys the growth of wild plant nectar and pollen that bees feast on”, he says. “If bees have no pollen, their body weight decreases, along with their strength to come out of hives in hot weather.” Colonies with smaller adult bee populations are less likely to survive in unfavourable conditions. “We suspect that is one of the reasons why they remain inside and eat their honey; to gain strength.”
Hence Nyondo, a honey trader, laments as he drains chunks of fresh honey into a washable plastic bucket. “Just 11 kilograms of honey per hive. This is how production has flopped, from 23 kilograms per hive eight years ago. We fear we will be impoverished.” He does not know whether he should abandon the trade or persist for little gain. “This could be catastrophic for us. Beekeeping is our main means of life. It provides us with food, money for education and health difficulties.”
"This could be catastrophic for us. Beekeeping is our main means of life."
Beekeeping in Zambia used to be largely a male profession because of culture apathy and practical needs of the craft that constrained women from looking after hives; men used to stay in villages and considered beekeeping as a physical job, unsuited to women. As Zambia urbanised, cities and mines expanded, so that men are increasingly leaving rural districts to find other jobs. Women stay behind and take over beekeeping. “Increasing temperatures especially devastate women because honey farming enables them to achieve financial independence”, says Evelyn Jamo, chair of the Muleya Women Honey Exporters Association. “If the business is ruined, women fall back into abusive marriages.”
As women often already have debt, the prospects of low income lead some to abandon the trade altogether and return to food crops out of necessity for survival. “Every year, [farmers] harvest honey and make money. But this year, business is hard”, says Evelyn Jamo. “The change in weather and increased heat continues to disrupt famers’ earnings. 120 women beekeepers have sold their hives in 2018 and abandoned the trade. It is just too hot. In a typical year, I used to make about K40, 000 (EUR 2,826), but this year we will tumble to K10, 000, (EUR 567). Life is becoming more difficult without healthy honey bees. If bees fail [to provide honey] in hot weather, our pain deepens.”
For the authorities, the effects of climate change on this lucrative business is troubling. Climate change is not just the subject of academic writing, but a lived experience in Zambia. Even a small change in temperature could disrupt a wide ecosystem of bees, crops and access to drinking water. As Dominic Mulenga, National Coordinator for Zambia's Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit, says: “In Zambia, climate change could lead to disaster. I fear it could bring catastrophic consequences for livelihoods. Extreme warm weather is affecting wildlife and flora alike, scorching and wilting plants. You must realise bees need flora and fauna to create honey.”
These effects are linked, as other animals are forced to scavenge for roots and further destroy the trees that host the bees. Whole ecosystems are suffering; higher numbers of hippos are dying, and vegetation has also been affected, with landscapes morphing into scores of petrified trees in dried-out areas. It is a chain, from bees, to hippos to flowers.
Unlike wealthy industrialised countries, the livelihoods of Zambia's rural honey farmers are largely hand-to-mouth, farm-to-table, with no security from banked savings or financial insurance to reduce uncertainty about the future. If bees fail to create adequate honey, their keepers become jobless, and hunger sets in.
Audrey Simango is a freelance journalist and food technology student at The Harare Institute of Technology. Ray Mwareya is a freelance journalist for Thomson Reuters Foundation and receiver of The UN Correspondents Association Media Prize 2016.
Photographs by Ray Mwareya, art by Maya Adams.