Sweet as honey: the African killer bees providing a living in Liberia

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Liberian beekeeper Cecil Wilson is holding up a honeycomb, crawling with hundreds of so-called killer bees. They are the most aggressive in Africa, but the honey is good, he says, as they start swarming around him.

African bees – or Apis mellifera scutellata, to be precise – are not to be messed with. Not for nothing did they feature in 1978 disaster horror flick The Swarm. But for an increasing number of Liberians, still struggling to get by in a shattered postwar economy, they are providing a much-needed livelihood.

One of the poorest countries in the world, Liberia is ranked 177 out of 188 countries on the UN’s human development index. Beekeeping mainly attracts subsistence farmers who are keen to boost their income, while raising crop yields through increased pollination. But since it doesn’t require much land, the activity is accessible to all.

Today, there are 1,352 trained beekeepers in the country. A decade ago, when honey hunting – the ancient practice of raiding honey from wild bees, often killing colonies in the process – was the norm, there were only 50 and supermarket shelves were filled with imported honey. There is now a growing domestic market for locally produced honey.

The trend was kickstarted by Kent Bubbs and Landis Wyatt. Bees were the last thing on the Canadian couple’s minds when they first arrived in Liberia in 2007 to build schools. “The schools were lovely, but there was such a strong charity feel to it all,” says Wyatt. “Giving people the ability to make money, that felt much more empowering. The big question came: ‘What are people asking for?’” says Bubbs. “And it was jobs.”

The programme is run by Universal Outreach, a Vancouver-based NGO established by Bubbs’s father. It comprises an intensive eight-day course, followed by up to two years of monthly mentoring extended to trainees across the country. Over the past six years, beekeepers from Canada, Nigeria, the UK and the US have offered their expertise, creating a corps of master beekeepers in Liberia.

At a time when bee populations are threatened and honey production is declining in the west, Liberia offers optimum conditions for learning the craft. Single crop farming, a cause of stress and poor nutrition for bee colonies, is rare. And neonicotinoid insecticides, thought to affect the memory and cognitive ability of bees, according to findings by researchers at the University of Stirling, are practically unheard of.

The beekeeping process is as nature intended, says Bubbs. “It’s about letting the strong survive, allowing bees to be bees.”

But the initiative would be nothing without a market, which is where Wilson comes in. Having trained as a beekeeper with Universal Outreach, he now co-owns and runs Liberia Pure Honey, a social enterprise that guarantees purchases at fair trade prices and packages the product for supermarket shelves. Over the past four years, it has grown to become the biggest brand of honey in the country, with profits reinvested into infrastructure and training. Wilson, who remembers feeling petrified during his first days of training, now seems perfectly at ease amid the swarm. He set up this particular apiary – located near the town of Kakata, in Liberia’s Margibi County – on his father’s land, for use as a training and research centre.

The bees here are descended from a group of colonies that were exterminated by their owner after they invaded a nearby village, sending the residents fleeing in terror. Wilson had removed some bees before the incident in an attempt to reduce the aggression. They were uncontrollable, he says, and everyone had given up on them. The apiary is run by Wilson’s friend, Ethel Thompson. He proposed beekeeping to her a few years ago, while she was still grappling with wartime trauma, having witnessed the shooting of her parents by rebel forces during the war, which spanned 1989 to 2003.

At that time, Thompson was earning a pittance selling fritters on the streets of Kakata. She knew nothing about bees and the idea of going anywhere near a hive terrified her. But she decided to go for it. Three years on, she is earning enough to raise her three children. Not only that, she is about to start training beekeepers herself.

“Beekeeping benefited me a lot because it made me do something for myself,” she says. “I’m not afraid of them any more.”

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