“Pure oil!” our driver, Fredrick, gasped as the honey dripped from the top of the hive box. We were in the process of harvesting honey from a stingless bee colony at the home-apiary of local farmer Stanley Imbusi. Stanley was introduced to us earlier in the day as the “stingless bee expert of Kenya” by our colleague Dr. Mary Gikungu from JKUAT. Mary certainly wasn’t lying. As we pulled in to Stanley’s property, we could see letters painted on to the side of his house spelling out “Stingless Bees Research Center”. If we consider ourselves anywhere near knowledgeable of honey bees, then we are complete tyros when it comes to the stingless variety. What a relief to be surrounded by experts!
Like many farmers in Kenya, beekeeping has been a tradition in Stanley’s family, having first learned the techniques from his grandfather. He started his pioneer colonies of stingless bees in 1994 using the design of a modified Langstroth hive, allowing just one small hole for an entrance/exit. Many of the original hives are still in use at his apiary today, including the colony we were to harvest honey from later on.
Three species of stingless bees are maintained at Stanley’s apiary: Meliponula bocandei, Meliponula ferruginea and Hypotrigona gribodoi. The three species vary both in appearance and size. M. bocandei looks similar to the more familiar honey bee, while H. gribodoi doesn’t seem much larger than the fruit flies (Drosophila) that usually fly around my lab back at Penn State.
Citing sentimental reasons, Stanley convinced us we should harvest honey from one of his original M. bocandei colonies. Luckily for us, the hundreds of workers that usually occupy the hive were out foraging, so we could open up the box simply by prying off the top board. As soon as Stanley removed the top, honey began dripping everywhere and the moon-base appearance of the stingless bee colony became visible. Near the entrance was the brood, where new eggs are laid, followed by the stores of bright orange pollen collected by the foragers. Stanley had us each try some of the tartly sweet pollen grains, telling us that traditionally it is believed to be good for healthy teeth and gums.
The honey was located in the rear third of the hive. Using a knife, Stanley scraped off large sections of beeswax and honey into a bowl and then filtered the mixture into a large pitcher to separate out the pure honey (or “pure oil!” as our driver Fredrick calls it). In total we collected slightly more than two and a half kilograms of honey, although Stanley revealed he can often harvest in excess of four from a hive of that size. Stanley can fetch almost 1000 Ksh (~$10) for half a kilogram of stingless bee honey on the market and uses his apiary as a major source of income. It can take around 8 months for a single hive to build up enough honey for harvest.
The honey of stingless bees in Kenya is highly revered and holds a place of importance in traditional medicine and culture. Fredrick’s eyes lit up at the sight of the honey dripping, as did our own. It’s easy to see that this is a prized commodity. While in Kakamega, we heard from numerous locals that the honey of stingless bees is traditionally used to treat everything from asthma to burn wounds. In fact, there has been some recent scientific research into the antimicrobial properties of stingless bee honey. However, of particular interest to Jeff is its traditional use to treat baldness (he insists he’s just trying to plan ahead).
After the honey harvest we spent a few hours completing our collections around Stanley’s apiary, and an important point became clear. After we leave with our collections and write up the results in various publications, it is easy to forget about the individual people and places behind the data that have their own stories. For Stanley, his stingless bees are not just another data point in some research study, but decades of trial, error, and understanding. They are a way of life.