The Beekeepers of Shewula

Livestock and beekeeping

Notes to broadcasters

The following story is based on the experiences of a beekeeping project in Shewula, Swaziland. It is about some of the problems faced and the creative ways that the project participants found to solve them. The project was a collaboration of community members and the staff of the nearby Mlawula Nature Reserve as part of the Reserve’s Community Outreach Program.

The people of Shewula in Swaziland were learning how to keep bees. Shewula is a community of about 3,000 people in the Lubombo mountains of northeastern Swaziland. Most of the population grows corn and raises livestock. There are not many other ways to make a living. So beekeeping would be a good new activity for the community. Local people could earn an income keeping bees. Beekeeping would not require expensive equipment, or a lot of space. Even people with no land could keep bees.

Ten people from the community took a year-long training course about beekeeping. They would then train their friends and neighbours.


Building beehives and trap boxes

The first challenge of the project was to find and collect some bees. The beekeepers began by building trap boxes. A trap box is a simple wooden box — it looks like a small crate. It is used to trap bees in the wild. Then they spread propolis, a sticky substance that bees produce, on the outside of the trap boxes to attract bees. They placed the trap boxes in trees to catch swarms of bees. Then they waited. It usually takes about four to ten weeks before bees will move into the trap boxes and start building combs. It may take longer during the dry season when bees are less active.

In the meantime, each person built a beehive. They made the hives from wooden boards, some nails and a piece of flat iron. These hives had 25 wooden bars which fit into the top of the hive. The bees would later attach their combs to these bars. The hives were called “Swazi hives” because they were designed in Swaziland and could be made with local materials.

Establishing the bee yard

Once the hives were built, the question was where to put them. Bees need water and flowering plants nearby. And the hives should be protected from the sun. So the people chose a clearing near a river, surrounded by flowering trees. This would be the site of the bee yard, also called an apiary. The apiary could be easily reached by foot from the community. At the same time, it was out of the way so that the bees or beekeepers were not disturbed by people or cars passing by.

In the apiary each hive was placed close to a tree – about half a metre away from the tree trunk. The shade of the trees would keep the hives cool. The hives were at least two metres apart. They were placed on stands with four wooden legs. The stands were made of wood scraps and other materials that the participants found around the site.

Once the bee yard was established, the combs and bees from the trap boxes were moved and placed into the hives. The top bars from the trap boxes had been made so they would fit perfectly inside a hive. The bees were now in their new home and the beekeepers had completed the first part of the project. They had trapped the bees, built the hives, and set up the bee yard. Now it was time for the bees to get busy and make honey.

Managing beehive pests

After a while somebody observed that it was very easy for livestock and wildlife to get into the apiary and disturb the hives. To reduce the chances of this happening they planted large aloe plants (Aloe marlothii) around the bee yard to make a living fence. The row of aloe formed a barrier which made entry to the yard more difficult for animals. And there was another advantage of aloe. Because it blooms in winter its flowers would provide nectar for bees at a time when food was scarce.

But there were some pests that this fence could not keep out. Ants and termites were getting into some of the hives and eating the combs. The bees could not compete with the ants and were forced to leave the hive. The ants ate the rest of the combs, leaving the hive empty. So the community had to find a solution. As mentioned earlier, the hives were set on top of stands which had four wooden legs. Under each leg the people now placed a soup tin full of wood ash. Wood ash is a natural pesticide which keeps ants away. If the ants tried to climb up into the hive, they would get no further than the wood ash. The cans could also be filled with oil – motor oil or cooking oil. If ants climbed up the leg of the stand they would fall into the tin and drown in the oil.

Just after they solved the termite problem the beekeepers were faced with another challenge. Baboons and monkeys began to invade the hives. So the people cut a metal sheet to fit on top of the hive. They placed large rocks on top of the metal sheet to keep it in place. The rocks were too heavy for the baboons and monkeys to lift so they could no longer get in the hive.

In spite of the pest problems, everyone could see that the bees were surviving – even thriving. The people checked the bees every week and saw that they were busy collecting nectar, feeding their young, and filling the combs with honey.

Harvesting the honey and wax

After eight weeks the combs were full of honey ready for harvest. But there was no special equipment to get the honey from the combs.

What could they do?

Someone had a bright idea. They gathered the combs together in a nylon mesh bag – the kind of bag often used for oranges. They squeezed the bag tightly with their hands to extract the honey. The honey came out through the holes and the wax stayed in the bag. They strained it again. Now they had thick, clear, golden honey ready to sell. Buyers came from all corners of the community. And honey was not the only product of value. More surprising to the beekeepers were the ways they could use the beeswax.

The hard wax from the combs was boiled until it became a liquid. This liquid wax was poured into a bucket for storage, and cooled. This pure wax could now be used at any time to make other products such as candles, vaseline or floor polish.

For example, simply by adding baby oil to the wax they could make vaseline. By adding kerosene they could make floor polish. They made candles by pouring liquid wax into a mold. Now they had many products to sell – not just the honey. And there were lots of buyers. In fact the community’s high school ordered a large quantity of floor polish because they could save money by buying the product locally.

After one year the beekeepers of Shewula felt that their project was a success. They had gained many useful skills. They were making money. And something else. They recognized now more than ever the importance of the trees in the surrounding forest. Without the nectar from the flowering trees there would be no honey. So, through beekeeping, they had found a way to make money and keep the forest alive and productive at the same time.



  • This script is based on an interview with Betty Rigler who was the Community Outreach Officer with the Shewula beekeeping project between 1995 and 1997.
  • The project was carried out by the Mlawula Nature Reserve and the people of Shewula. The Swaziland Ministry of Agriculture provided technical support.
  • The production of this script was made possible with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada.
  • All graphics are from Introduction to beekeeping, First edition, 1988, published by the Swaziland Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, P.O. Box 162, Mbabane, Swaziland.