Local beekeeping is currently faced with a range of challenges, including adverse weather conditions and the rapid decline in bee numbers worldwide – which is a global concern seeing as bees pollinate crops that are produced for human consumption. The cheap price of low-quality imported honey is also a threat to South African honey farmers.
However, a new type of beehive has the potential to revitalise honey production in this country. The concept sees traditional wooden hive structures replaced with an innovative concrete frame. Although a concrete hive is not in itself a new idea, the new Beegin hive provides several design adjustments that have helped a test group of beekeepers to increase their productivity.
The progressive, aptly named Beegin was created by Ivan Brown and was born out of this intrepid industrial design student’s goal to expand local beekeeping and contribute to both job creation and food security in this country. Brown is currently studying for a master’s degree at the University of Johannesburg. His work on Beegin, which started as a research project, has been featured at several international design conferences. He has also co-authored several research papers.
Brown came up with the design when he entered the PPC Imaginarium Awards, the country’s most supportive arts and design competition for emerging creatives that seeks to reward innovation in concrete. Brown was named the runner-up in the industrial design category of the awards in 2015 and PPC then supplemented Brown’s prize money with a seed grant to assist him with prototyping his initial concept. PPC has since assisted Brown with further funding to aid the nationwide rollout of the project after a successful testing phase.
The testing process took two years. In that time, all ten of the participants (five beekeepers and five urban farmers) were kept appraised of Brown’s new beekeeping technology.
“The testing process was fantastic!” he adds. “We uncovered a range of issues with the original design and the production process. We refined the entire system.”
For the farmers involved, these tests served as a learning process, teaching them to introduce and keep bees on their farms. Since then, honey production has increased considerably.
Having learned the requisite skills, farmers and beekeepers are now able to serve as access points in the community. Marginalised farming communities may thus manage to take part in processes surrounding the keeping and introduction of beehives.
In addition, the insulation properties of concrete proved to be beneficial in the testing phase of this innovative beehive concept. “In hot and cold weather, the bees expend a great deal of energy regulating the temperature of the hive to keep the larvae alive,” says Brown. “The energy is made by consuming honey, and by insulating the bees from temperature variations the hives become more productive and efficient.”
Mike Shapland, a hobby beekeeper based in Johannesburg, took part in the testing process. A long-time user of traditional wooden hives, Shapland compares the old hives with the benefits of the new concrete one. “There’s a dramatic effect on productivity,” he notes. “The bees don’t have to work as hard. And fewer of them have to work!”
Low productivity is among the barriers to production in the South African honey-making industry. South Africa is short several thousand tonnes of honey each year, according to commercial beekeeper Brett Falconer. Competition from cheap imports, of which 76% are Chinese, is an added challenge to beekeepers looking to enter the local honey-making industry. Cheap, low-quality imports have been on the rise since 2001, putting strain on local honey producers, who also have to contend with poor environmental conditions.
Free State-based Danie Peach is another beekeeper who took part in the Beegin testing process. He found that the new concrete design helped to accommodate changes in weather. “The past two to three years were very dry,” he says. “The wooden hives crack and you need to go back to the hives and repair the cracks. But with the concrete that is not the case.”
Now that Brown’s design will be available nationwide, it has the ability to impact the economy positively on a larger scale. Case studies show that beekeeping has empowered small businesses in areas like Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, introducing a new wave of local commercial beekeepers.
For example, Mokgadi Mabela founded Polokwane-based business The Native Nosi in 2015 to produce local, quality honey, as well as alleviate poverty through job creation. Mabela’s honey is currently in high demand, and she hopes to expand her business.
Thoko Njemla began beekeeping 16 years ago in response to a job shortage in the Eastern Cape. As of early 2017, she employed five people and harvested several tonnes of honey each year.
Small honey-producers in South Africa can indeed thrive and beekeeping has the potential to empower even more SMMEs. The new Beegin hive seems set to fast-track that success. 2018 looks to be a most promising year for Brown’s fledgling company of the same name. Since April 2018, Beegin has sold tools and beehives to businesses and individuals across South Africa, in the hope of seeing beekeepers become fully self-sufficient, and beekeeping in general become more sustainable.