Beyond My Expectations

Beyond My Expectations


In collaboration with WEEMA international, It’s been 2 years since we led 2, week long beekeepers training programs in Kembata-Tembaro Ethiopia, 350 km southwest of the East African capital Addis Ababa.

In each of the introductory training programs, 35 community members were introduced to the basics of bee biology, health, and beehive management. As part of the workshop community members participated in the construction of their own locally resourced transitional style top bar hive and were actively trained in how to transfer bees from the transitional type as well as how to catch swarms in order to grow their apiary site. 8 months later we returned to the communities, introduced a honey press machine, and spoke and demonstrated proper honey harvesting techniques, which enabled beekeepers to increase the value of their product by separating it from the wax.


At that point, in November of 2014, beekeepers had already begun to see an increase in honey product, from harvesting 4 kilos of honey singlehandedly from the traditional basket hive; they were now harvesting 12+ kgs, increasing their production 3 fold in only one harvest. Before our departure beekeepers were encouraged to increase their hive number which they enthusiastically agreed.


Soon following WEEMA followed our suggestions and contracted Tameskin Alemu, our beekeeping assistant, translator and carpenter, to work directly with the beekeepers in order to increase hive numbers and address challenges as they surface.


With WEEMA’s additional support, bamboo and rope, 2 necessary materials for hive construction were sourced from neighboring towns and sourced to the beneficiaries as they continued constructing more beehives.

12 months later, I’ve returned with a group of Columbia University Graduate student who through their semester long course have partnered with WEEMA International to better understand the honey value chain in Ethiopia therefore making suggestions on the best way for our beekeepers to market their more readily available honey and wax product.


With all this instruction behind, I wasn’t quite prepared to find such great success upon our visit with beneficiaries this past week. Not only have hive numbers increased, but livelihoods have noticeably been altered for the better. In one of our apiary site visits Bakalesh proudly showed us 10 active hives behind her Medula home. 


Considering she hadn’t kept bees before our training session, this is considered quite the accomplishment regardless of her circumstances. Through the sale of her honey she is now sending her children to school as well as training her son in beekeeping with hopes to continue increasing her hive numbers.

Kembata- Tembaro Honey Press

Kembata- Tembaro Honey Press


Until now, beekeepers in both Medula and Kololo  have sold their crude honey in the form known as “injera”. Going by the same name as that of the fermented teff grain bubbly flat bread, honey along with pollen, propolis, and rolly jelly all are all sold inside of the wax honey comb.


Nutritionally, this mix is very beneficial as all the bee products are kept in their most natural state. However, as beekeepers sell these products in their crude form to the the tej makers in town who in turn mix it all with water and allow it to ferment in the production of their traditional honey wine, these benefits as well as their market potential are lost.


The second half of our workshop was spent introducing the proper use and maintenance of an Italian imported honey press machine.



Beyond benefiting from the increased amount of honey produced in the transitional beehives, beekeepers are also able to benefit from the cleaner and more hygienic products the bees create.


Rather than selling the “injera” honey to the tej buyers at an average price of 50 Birr per Kilo (2 Euros/Kilo), by separating the wax from the honey, beekeepers have the potential of selling the wax for at least 200 Birr/Kg (8 Euros/Kilo) and the pure table honey for another 60 Birr/KG.


Yet, as beekeepers brought to our attention, the sell isn’t always going to be easy. In order to increase the product, many honey sellers, weather producers or resellers have the reputation of mixing their honey with sugar in order to increase it’s over all weight. So when product quality is in question, selling honey inside the comb has been the only way to guarantee its purity.


Temporarily stumped at this issue myself, I know that the only change to this dilemma is community education. Beekeepers need to be constant with their selling prices as well as production. When they value their product, buyers desiring their product will have no choice but to do the same.


By being consistent with their production as well as quality, beekeepers can recreate a stronger market in their favor, and like most changes this will take time.


But as their enthusiasm and commitment have shown me in our little time working together, I have no reason to think that they won’t.


Motivated Medula Women Beekeepers

Motivated Medula Women Beekeepers

Urban beekeeping isn’t always an easy task, and even further so when your a women living in a dust filled male dominated rural Ethiopian city of 10,000 plus people.

But the women who turned up for our Sunday beekeeper review and healthy honey harvest workshop are slowly changing that. Just like in any other highly populated space, keeping bees requires attention to certain rules and regulations. One of which requires a three meter fence separating bees from inhabited spaces, that of which requires materials that not all community members have access to. When brought to their attention, the Medula women enthusiastically created a list of resourceful solutions.


We once again gathered their list of flowering plants and trees, created a nectar flow calendar and came to a mutual agreement of the best best times to work, feed, and harvest from the hives.

In the afternoon we regrouped and collectively made our way to one of the beekeepers homes.


The women proudly pulled their protective gear out of it´s original packaging, 


and we made our way back to the hives. 


Smoking calmed the bees and as all the women gathered, 


we excitedly began to identify all the combs. 

With all the challenges aside, it´s safe to say that the Medula women beekeepers are on the right track!

When is honey ready to harvest?

When is honey ready to harvest?

Both classroom time and field time were spent this past Saturday and Sunday with community beekeepers in order to better answer what might seam like a simple question. Though some beekeepers have already harvested honey twice since establishing  their newly constructed transitional hives 8 months ago, questions of their products quality is a big concern. 

IMG_4593 .

We started Saturday morning in Kololo by identifying the area’s nectar flow calender. By compiling a list of bee forage trees and plants and the months in which they flower, beekeepers can better prepare for their hives to be in full force as well as harvest the honey to make room for the next round. However, not just any honey can be taken.

After making hundreds of foraging trips to fill just one wax cell with nectar. bees must provide enough ventilation within their honeycomb for the nectars’ humidity level to drop below 20%. Once this is achieved, bees finish the preservation process by covering it with a thin layer of wax. By acquiring this low humidity level, not only will the nectar keep without spoiling but the honeys’ micro septic properties make it impossible for bacteria to grow thus preserving it’s quality  Only at this point is the honey ready to keep until needed by the bees and therefor ready for the beekeeper to harvest.

Upon completion of our theoretical review beekeepers gathered at Worku Ochemo’s home and we put our newly acquired knowledge to the test.


 We prepared our smoker, put on our protective gears and as the sun went down we began our practical session with the transitional beehive.


We opened the hive and were happy to see that the bees had so positively taken to their new homes.


Bees don’t work for nothing, and their wax production and extension of the honey comb not only shows the quality of the hive design but of the bees ability and desire to fill it with food.


As the bees gently buzzed acknowledging our presence and under the light of a simple headlamp and torch beekeepers looked on as we identified and explained each of the combs. The above panel filled with pollen was excitedly distinguished, 


from this one, of ripe honey.


Ambakuna Hive Tours

Ambakuna Hive Tours

We began our time in Kembata-Tembaro Ethiopia touring as many of our recently trained beekeepers homes as one day allows.


Friday morning was spent in Medula,


where beekeepers proudly demonstrated their established transitional beehives, recently acquired swarms awaiting transferring, and their newly constructed coverings protecting their hives against rain and sun.


Beekeepers took the time to explain how beneficial the hives were in comparison to the old and not only were the bees able to produce more honey but the beekeepers noticed that they were happier in their cleaner home.



We spent time asking questions about bee forage and harvest times, and no beekeeper hesitated in identifying the plethora off nectar and pollen plants surrounding their homes.



                                 The afternoon took us back to Kololo, 


where beekeepers once again, welcomed us into their homes.


They were excited to show us their growing apiary and all the new transitional hives they’ve built since our last workshop only 8 months ago.




Following our February 2014 workshop, beekeepers had already harvested honey twice,


and were very eager for us to sample.




Not only was it a joy to visit the homes of more than 10  new and old beekeepers but there commitment and enthusiasm showed through their generosity, 



and it was all just a taste of the beautiful experiences to come.


WEEMA Honey phase 2!

WEEMA Honey phase 2!

As I gaze out my balcony window here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, my view of the empty concrete tower foregrounded by the shimmering blue swimming pool reflecting  the hazy November sky offers me the opportunity to think about the “Development Work” I too have engaged myself in.



Far too often and more and more common, development work, or the concept of providing forward progress relies on copying buildings, systems or markets which seam to be successful in their birthplace and copy and paste them every where else around the world. Materials are gathered, machinery is sourced, and people are given labor.  Yet, this one size fits all scope doesn’t work; though shinny and pretty, no one’s swimming in the pool and I  wander how many even know how to swim.

Though the tourism and urban planning sectors are distinct from that of beekeeping development, many lessons can be learned and mistakes associated with hopes for fast growth can be avoided.


8 months following the active formation of 70 Kembata Tembaro community members in our WEEMA Honey beekeeping development program last February,  as of 1 AM this morning I am back in Ethiopia and am excited as ever to begin the next phase of our program.

In partnership with the local agriculture office our program and the WEEMA Honey team will begin this Friday and commence with apiary site visits at the homes of our phase one beneficiaries. Saturday and Sunday we will hold a pair of  full day advanced beekeeper workshops for the most committed beneficiaries in  each group and  in the evening hold a  practical honey harvest workshop with the entirety of both. Monday and Tuesday will be spent introducing the new honey press and assisting trainees in the healthy and hygienic harvest of honey goods. Throughout the 5 days visit a large focus will be spent surveying program participants in order to to better understand the short term impact, benefits  and areas for improvement of our program.


As the swimming pool construction lot view reminds me, slow growth and consistency based in  education which allow time for adaptation and incorporation will offer our program the sustainability it can later be based and expanded on.

So thank you everyone for your support and to WEEMA International for making this all happen!


Harvesting Honey in a Jungle Paradise

Harvesting Honey in a Jungle Paradise

Marcos's brothers house

Marcos’s brothers house

Following Marcos’ invitation we waited for a sunny day and with good fortune met him on the main road as he was preparing to leave for the market. Upon seeing Ashu and I, he turned his plan around, and we walked together to his home. Taking what he told us was a shortcut, we walked down a beaten red earth path and began ducking our heads underneath the large banana leaves providing shade along the way. As we walked by Marcos’s brother houses I was once again mesmerized by the fauna. Though everyone tells me, that the greenness is nothing compared to what it will be following ‘krumpt’ or the rainy season, come September, I can’t help but stare at the bounty of coffee trees with their shiny leaves and bean covered branches, bright purple banana flowers hanging under the basket of growing bananas or even the 2 meter tall cornstalks surrounded by bees pollinating their flowers.

Coffee Beans at Large

Coffee Beans at Large

As we were walking Marcos apologized for not having anything prepared to offer us. It is customary to have freshly roasted and grounded coffee as well as roasted grains and or freshly baked bread upon home visits. However, again through my friend Ashu’s translations, we both agreed that honey was the best offering around, and laughed as we began conversing over our common interests.

Marcos' daughter smiling my spacewomen outfit.

Marcos’ daughter smiling my spacewomen outfit.

When we arrived to his home, his 5 children came out to meet us. Surprising me with his English he introduced them from oldest to youngest. I’m constantly amazed at the relativity of age, especially while in Africa. It is always impressive to see a 3 year old carrying around and tending to their younger sibling. Responsibility kicks in here quite soon to say the least. We all exchanged smiles, and as we began preparing for our beehive visit, one of Marcos’ Daughters tried on my protective head gear and we ended up sharing a few laughs.

Upside down broken coffee pot, filled with cow dung and lit to perfection. Smoke is a beekeepers best friend.

Upside down broken coffee pot, filled with cow dung and lit to perfection. Smoke is a beekeepers best friend.

Marcos began by collecting cow dung and igniting it over a half broken and upside down ceramic coffee pot. Blowing across the hay he used to ignite the generous pile of manure, he was able to quickly achieve the heavy and rich smoke billow. As any beekeeper knows smoke can be your best friend when opening a hive, and as I was soon to find out, even more so when working with African bees at noon on a hazy sunny day.

Marcos standing proudly next to his Modern beehives

Marcos standing proudly next to his Modern beehives

Along with the 19 woven bamboo traditional hives he proudly keeps, Marcos was one of the few lucky beekeepers to receive the nominal training and modern beehive equipment from World Vision. It was one week sooner than he had planned to harvest from the hive, but he was eager to share what he knew as well as practiced with me. We approached the hive from the behind and using a curved 12 inch/30 cm crass cutting knife Marcos began to pry the lid from the box. I was immediately delighted to see that the entrance protecting as well as bacteria fighting resin of propolis was doing its’ job to keep all the openings closed, yet its stickiness and Marco’s tools at hand made for an overall aggressive entrance.

Grass cutting knife in one hand, billowing smoke fountain in the other and a mere blanket to protect against the raging honey bees.

Grass cutting knife in one hand, billowing smoke fountain in the other and a mere blanket to protect against the raging honey bees.

What I have forgotten to mention, is Marcos’ protective wear, or better yet other than a thick wool blanket wrapped over his head and around his shoulders, lack thereof. As he successfully removed the beehive lid, balancing the increasingly more important smoke in one hand, thousands off bees shot out from the hive and began to buzz all around us. Equally as important as a constant billow of smoke when working with a beehive, is a sense of calmness. I like to believe that like dogs, bees sense fear, so despite the constant state of vibration I breath and admire the beauty of the hive. From the inside of my head gear, rain coat, and extended leather gloves, I know it’s much easier than out. Therefor I amazingly witnessed as Marco’s maintained his calm, and began to separate the panels as he worked behind the constant stream of smoke he blew over the hive. A balancing act equal to that of a lion tamer if you ask me.

Look closely and you will see the the individual honey combs hanging from the panels.

Look closely and you will see the the individual honey combs hanging from the panels.

One of the reasons for Lorenzo Langstroths’s invention of the closed panel box style beehive was the effectiveness of independently hanging honey combs. By providing 4 wooden sides to each panel, he could assure that the bees would work horizontally in their honey comb construction and fill one panel from side to side. This panel as a whole could then be uncapped, and the honey could be drained from the comb leaving the wax in place. However, when opening Marcos’ hive, we saw that the bees constructed their combs to their natural likings, and using the top bars as their guide built a handful of independently hanging combs inside each panel. As I stood beside, working from the outside in, Marcos began removing the panels one by one and 4 in all. Using only smoke, he calmly blew off as many bees as possible and set the panel on top of a large and shallow plate. Once all the honey comb filled panels were out, again with the smoke in one hand and knife in the other, he cut the comb from the wood, and then gently set the empty panels back in their place. For the duration of the process I watched in awe as bees landed on and instinctively stung his arms and hands, and not once did he flinch.

In preparation for the rainy and thus plentiful season to come, Marcos finished his beekeeping work by placing a small plastic grate on top of the hive and then placed another panel filled box on top of that. Used to assure the queen bee doesn’t travel upwards, the grate separates the brood nest from the future honey harvest. Over the course of the next few months, Marcos is accustomed to seeing a high nectar production from his bees, and this super, or second level of the modern hive, gives the bees space to make that possible. Despite the fact that he lacks a few basic resources as well as information, the high honey production speaks for itself, and Marcos is strongly in favor of using modern hives.

Carrying the plate with the harvested honey combs we joined his family as well as Ashu, who were hiding from the aggressive bees inside Marcos’ simple home. He pulled up some stools in front of the chalkboard where he taught his children math and with a smile on his face, placed the plate down and began offering the honey to everyone. He was eager to know what I thought, and as I was still beside myself with the experience of opening a hive in the middle of a jungle paradise in southern Ethiopia, I shook my head, grabbed a chunk of honey comb and tasted paradise.