..for so work the honeybees, Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom."
- William Shakespeare, Henry V 1599
“When you work with bees, they put something in your heart,”Adema Senghor, President of the Toubacouta Beekeepers Association, shared with the ~16 aspiring women beekeepers that gathered in Missirah, Senegal to wrap up our farmer to farmer training on beekeeping and plan next steps for their apiary. Adema graciously offered tips gleaned from over 25 years experience as a beekeeper in Senegal. Both he and co-founder Moussa Manne with the Toubacouta Beekeepers Association had agreed to share with the women how they got started with beekeeping as well as commit to supporting the Missirah women as mentor beekeepers. They are also the purveyors of the award winning 'Sur de Saloum' —prized honey from the mangrove blossoms and other petals sipped from native trees and cashew groves in the 'La Paletuveire' (French word for mangroves and the coastal plain forests that shape Senegal's Sine Saloum Delta).
Little did I know that I had landed in Senegal's 'honey-pot'. Toubacouta and Missirah are places where the forest meets mangrove, meets ocean. The place is tidal in feel and in landscape. The area is equipped with everything a honeybee needs – ample blooms year-round, access to water, plenty of bee space (i.e. tree cavities) and shade/shelter from the wind and sun. All of this makes for a healthy hive, strong queen and two honey flows/year. Every farm I toured and even in the forest reserves I came across 'bee trees' where wild hives hovered at the base of baobabs alongside 'captured swarms' housed in Langstroth hive bodies. The La Palatuveire is it's own 'honey house' of bees, flowers, bush mangoes, monkeys, and moringa magic.
Admittedly, I was a little wary when I had signed on to support a farmer to farmer project on beekeeping. While I knew that a sting or two comes with the territory, I was concerned about what would happen after two weeks time, when it was time to return to Wisconsin. Much about keeping bees is anticipating bee behavior throughout the season—learning by doing over time. My own experiences with getting started with beekeeping a few years back hinged in part on Rob and I connecting with a beekeeping mentor nearby and having access to local resources, not just for supplies, but also for knowledge sharing and troubleshooting when questions came up and mistakes inevitably made. Regardless, I had kept in touch with local groups and farmers that I had met through past volunteer farmer to farmer projects in Senegal, and it was through these nested networks that I was able to find the Toubacouta Beekeepers Association. The opportunity to connect with the local beekeepers and their willingness to support a day of training with the Missirah women and commit to follow-up was reassuring that this wouldn't be a 'dazzle and abandon project'. The women had continued support in with their learning and access to local/regional markets (Toubacouta beekeepers shared that the demand for their honey exceeds supply so it is also in their best market interest to expand the network of local beekeepers).
But before we set out on our beekeeping adventures, we had to 'honey-over' a few relationships from a past beekeeper development effort that had curbed Toubacouta Beekeepers's and Missirah Growers' appetite for working together. Two years prior, Missirah women had received beekeeping equipment from an NGO that had since left the area. Unfortunately, training was not part of the equipment package and the women were left with materials for 60 Langstroth hives and bee suits for the group, though the women were ill equipped to manage their apiary. They also lacked funds for membership with Toubacouta Beekeepers at the time. All of this was unearthed during our first day of meetings, wherein Yaguemar, NCBA-CLUSA Farmer to Farmer Program Director for Senegal, and I met with Adame and Moussa, (Toubacouta Beekeepers Association), Aminata (Missirah President), Alpha (AfriCorps) and Toubacouta's Mayor to address needs and be transparent about my role and the role of the farmer to farmer project in the area. This is one of the reason's I so appreciate the farmer to farmer model. As a volunteer I am able to connect with local growers and groups to support projects that align with needs and bring shared interests/skills to the topic at hand. The only currencies transferred are knowledge and shared understanding of the risks and rewards that the project brings. In this case, beekeeping. I was also levering local networks and support from Toubacouta Beekeepers Association and AfriCorps, an orgnization that places local volunteers to support community development projects throughout Senegal.
Our initial meeting was the first of many lessons that the honeybees offered. I had to learn the local 'swarm smarts'. This proved relatively easy as Yaguemar worked his facilitation ingenuity in helping with planning and translation and the Missirah women were motivated and eager to build on their baseline knowledge of bees.
The Business of Bees...
Bees + Honey = Money? Actually the equation is more like:
Bees + Hive + Equipment + Good Site location + Experience + Forage + Knowledge + Processing + Market + Labor + Love = yield
The women's interest in beekeeping would allow them to produce and generate income year round from honey sales. Many of the women (who are an association of 219 farmers) are seasoned entrepreneurs and grow vegetables such as carrots, cassava, ditakh (Seneglensis), mangoes, onion, tomatoes, peppers, and dry/process fish for sale at local markets. There are periods of the year when exploitation at sea level is suspended for vegetables. In addition, the honey they want to produce is popular in the markets and could earn between 2500 – 4000 CFA/kg (~$4 - $7). In general cost of living for the women is around 3,000 CFA/day. Outside of Missirah and closer to the cities of Kaolack and Dakar a kg of 'Sur de Saloum' honey sells for 6,000 – 8,000 CFA (~$10 - $14/kg). Honey sales would significantly support and supplement their monthly income.
Like the bees in a colony, it's important to comprise the decision-making group of individuals with shared interests, mutual respect, based on the needs at hand. Bees organize this way when first scouting for new 'real estate' (ie when they are in search of a new hive, getting ready to swarm). We needed to organize our training so that we were set to swarm together. Once we all had a shared understanding of our roles and goals in our beekeeping efforts (ie it wasn't all about bees + honey = money), we were able to hone in on our time together and set priorities which included: bee basics – such as site selection, honeybee life cycle, equipment needs, the business of bees, and getting comfortable working a hive.
In Wisconsin, I often contend with cold weather and need to adjust hive management around temperatures and bloom times. In Senegal, it's not so much cold, but wind and sun. Flower phenology will also help or hinder the hives' ability to thrive. Birds, moths, frogs, ants, and other robber bees are also concerns that beekeepers need to be mindful of, (though fortunately in Senegal, honey badgers and baboon pressures are absent, unlike in other parts of Africa). For our first few days of training we delved into bee life cycles and behavior, put together a 'flower calendar', assessed and cleaned equipment, and discussed site selection. We also moved a few empty hives that were scattered in various farm fields. It was under the cashew canopy where I was officially 'swarmed' in as a Senegal beekeeper. We were out gathering empty hives at Fatou's farm and I didn't notice that an adjacent hive had tenants. The bees weren't too happy at my surprise intrusion, but forgiving as a few guard bees chased me out and I managed to quickly yet deliberately get the hell out of there (I didn't have on my bee suit), remained calm, and only got stung a few times.
Waggle dancing to the rescue...
At the time of training, the women have 15 active hives in the mangroves and some propped up in trees. We went scouting for new site locations in the hopes of setting up the other 15 hives and this time, we would be ready with no surprise visits to the bees.
Like good decision making in a honeybee swarm when scouts set out to select site locations, training depended critically on our adjusting dance strength in relation to quality of content. I love to dance and fortunately, so do the Senegalese. We could all speak the language of dance in affirming our understanding and appreciation of knowledge shared. Waggle dance is the direction the bee moves in relation to the hive; if the bee moves vertically the direction to the source is directly towards the Sun. The duration of the waggle part of the dance signifies the distance. Bees waggle dance when scouting for real estate (ie new tree cavities) and as a tool for making decision. We also waggle danced to communicate—cultivating a series of waggle dances to affirm our understanding of materials. This came in handy especially on the day we went out as a group to inspect hives. Enthusiasm and spirits ran high as we all suited up and set out into the mangroves as the sun began it's descent over the estuary. In spite of having a bee jacket on, Yaguemar, who also served as a translator, was a little apprehensive in being so close to bees, but was willing to try. Our plan was to work in small groups and inspect 3 of the hives that the women had perched in the mangroves so as to minimize disturbance.
First stop, smoker lit, we observed the bees' flight path and I signaled to slowly open the hive from behind. Just as I pried the proplis from the top cover, the smoker went out and out poured thousands of bees. This is both a normal and crazy hypnotic experience. Instinct tells you to run, but everything about working with bees demands that you slow down, remain calm, and send love. A few folks were a little too close and Yaguemar fled, so I was left to the language of bees to communicate as we moved on to a more forgiving hive, the next patch of mangrove over. This time round most of the women were able to rotate and practice inspecting hives and we noted a healthy brood pattern – the queen was active! As I shared earlier, the Missirah women are fearless and one of the women confidently opened another hive nearby. Though I think in everyone's enthusiasm, our deliberate and planned efforts to work in small groups rotating in to inspect the hives gave way to a swarm of women eager to learn, much to the bees' agitation. This time guard bees approached us en masse and I knew it was time to leave, though I didn't speak Sere or Wolof, my translater fled, and the women didn't speak English. In the end it was the waggle dance that sent the signal to 'calm the chaos' and step away from the hives and quickly. Some had a harder time with calm than others and our exit from the mangrove apiary and back to town was more or less 'deliberate'. One fellow beekeeper got stung where gloves met bee jacket (bees just know how to find those weak spots), and unfortunately panicked and ripped the glove off. This of course invited many more bees into sting mode. Once a bee commits to stinging it is certain death for the bee and it will send an 'alarm pheremone' to warn other members of the hive of intruders. Thus the ripple effect of stings. I still daydream of how hypnotic it was to be walking amidst the mangroves at sunset while a cloud of disgruntled honeybees hovered around our overstuffed bee suited bodies, arms flailing like heron wings, as we wandered into town.
But that is how you learn beekeeping, by learning from and anticipating bee behavior. By the end of our two week training, the Missirah women's determination, entrepreneurial spirit, fearlessness, and weathered smiles put something in my own heart. Both bees and beekeepers shared their swarm smarts and I opened to the buzz of their laughter, fueled by the rustling of wings, waggle dances, and petals that stirred up the hives and echoed throughout the heart of the 'La Paletuveire'.
Erin Schneider, farms, teaches, and loves fruit. She co-owns and stewards Hilltop Community Farm a diversified CSA and market garden in La Valle WI and teaches through UW Madison's Farm and Industry Short Course Program and College of Ag and Life Sciences Study Abroad. For the past 16 years Erin has developed, managed, researched, taught sustainable agriculture and conservation programs that further innovation and capacity for farmers and communities to thrive in the world.
This is her 6th time volunteering in Senegal with the Farmer to Farmer program supporting women farmers, though her first time working with women on a beekeeping project.