Peace Corps Beekeeping Workshop

(Note: I’m writing this in May 2016 and then backdating it to provide some background for the post I’ve written on the resulting harvest of the hive that I helped start in Marshall because of this workshop. I had meant to write this as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but somehow I never got to it!)

In February I was one of the two volunteers selected to represent Liberia at a Peace Corps Beekeeping workshop in the Gambia. Even though in Liberia none of us volunteers had any beekeeping experience (because we’re all education volunteers), I expressed an interest and so I was selected as one of the two volunteers to go to this week-long workshop.

Peace Corps had partnered with the the UK-based organization BEECause in the Gambia to help train beekeepers and create a sustainable supply chain for their products. The volunteers involved decided to host the workshop for Peace Corps, so that other volunteers in the region involved with beekeeping could share ideas and resources. Volunteers from the whole West Africa region were there — I met volunteers and counterparts from Senegal, Benin, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Before I went, I was told to see if there was beekeeping interest in my community, and there was! My neighbor Robert had a good friend named Dolo, who was a beekeeper in Harbel. I met them one afternoon over a jug of palm wine and they told me all about what they already knew about beekeeping.

Here’s Robert, my neighbor:

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Here’s Dolo, his friend:

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Dolo was super passionate about beekeeping. He told me all about the different traditional ways honey was produced in Liberia. The most common way was to find a beehive in the bush and then harvest at night using smoke to drive the bees away. Or, in Dolo’s case, he’d build a box for the bees and put sugar water inside. They wouldn’t use any protection or bee suits — Dolo told me that the smoke would make the bees “get drunk” and “if you don’t hammock (bother) the bees, they won’t hammock you”. Once you got past the “police bees”, he said, the other bees working on the comb wouldn’t bother you.

When I got to the Gambia, it was interesting to me how different it was compared to Liberia. Up until that point, my entire experience of West Africa was Liberia, and so now I could start to see what characteristics of the culture in Liberia were unique to Liberia, and what was common to West Africa. Also, a lot was different because the Gambia is predominantly Muslim, whereas Liberia is majority Christian.

We spent most of our time at the workshop at the BEECause apiary, their base of operations. The area was beautiful, and there were beehives all around:

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One of the first things we as a group did was to don bee suits and go out in groups to learn how to inspect hives. Here’s Brandon (my fellow PCV from Liberia) and one of the workshop coordinators in our bee suits.

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We went out in groups to different hives to see what was inside.

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Unlike Dolo’s method of building a solid box, these were “Kenyan Top Bar” hives. The bars on the top allow beekeepers to be able to remove combs one at a time from the hive — meaning honey can be harvested without having to destroy the entire hive. This means after a harvest, the bees don’t have to start from scratch, so you can get more honey.

In the hive that we were inspecting, the combs weren’t built in the same direction as the bars — this is called “cross-combing”. As a part of our inspection we removed combs and reattached them to the bars properly using some wire.

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Later in the workshop, we got to build a catcher-box! These are little miniature hives that you can hang in trees to catch bees. You just put some wax inside as bait, and the bees come.  Then, when the bees have colonized the catcher-box, you can move the bars into a larger hive at ground level — the hives are constructed exactly the same as the catcher-boxes, just much larger.

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In addition to harvesting honey, we also learned how to process wax

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And with that wax, we learned how to make soap, chap-stick, skin lotion, and all kinds of other value added products.

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When I got back to my site, I shared everything I learned with Dolo and Robert and showed them the plans for the top bar beehive. They quickly found some materials and got to work!

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(The saw was a little dull and needed oil, so we just used some palm oil we had lying around)

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Dolo and Robert decided to do a little experiment and construct two hives in one — we had a little divider in the middle to allow for two hives to be colonized.

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Then we put it in the bush and covered it in zinc!

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We also put the catcher-box that I made out too:

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I asked if we should worry about people disturbing the bees, but Robert and Dolo assured me that people didn’t go to that part of the swamp that we placed the hives. A few days later I learned that a rumor started that there were coffins hidden in the bush. Robert and Dolo and I all laughed and figured that the rumor would probably help keep people away too.

A few weeks later, we revisited our hives and they were colonized! (See the bees at the entrance of the hive in the picture below.) Now all we have to do is wait for the bees to make some honey. 🙂

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It was a perfect Peace Corps experience — I only provided a little bit of guidance regarding some measurements and assembly, but my counterparts took charge and led the entire operation. As Peace Corps Volunteers, our job is to support and provide scaffolding, not to drive projects. My counterparts here did exemplary work!

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