Livestock Research for Rural Development 27 (5) 2015 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

Postharvest handling, opportunities and constraints to honey production in northern Ethiopia

Tewodros Alemu, Eyassu Seifu1 and Amsalu Bezabih2

Department of Animal Sciences, College of Agriculture, Wollo University Dessie Campus, Ethiopia.
1 Department of Food Science and Technology, Botswana College of Agriculture Gaborone, Botswana.
2 Honeybee Research Program, Holetta Agricultural Research Center, Holetta, Ethiopia


This study was conducted to assess postharvest handling of honey and to identify opportunities and constraints of honeybee production in Sekota district, northern Ethiopia. From the district two, three and four peasant associations (PAs) were randomly selected from the 33 PAs-stratified by location into highland, lowland and midland areas, respectively. Overall, 90 beekeeping households were selected purposively ten from each PA based on their experience in apiculture and participation in extension activities. The data generated was analyzed using the SPSS software. Semi-structured questionnaire was used to collect the data.

Major constraints for the development of apiculture in the area were drought, pests and predators and application of chemicals. Whereas the opportunities for the development of the apiculture sub-sector include experience and indigenous knowledge beekeepers, and attention given for the subsector by governmental and non-governmental organizations operating in the area in capacity building for improvement the production practices and honey quality. The length of storage of honey ranged from less than a month to greater than two years. Gourd, earthen pot, plastics and animal skins were the most important honey storage materials used in the area. Thus, conservation of natural resources, training on queen rearing techniques, provision of scientific control measures for the major bee enemies and diseases as well as provision of credit facilities and inputs are essential for sustainable development of the apicultural sector in the area.

Keywords: indigenous knowledge, drought, pests, Sekota


Beekeeping is a sustainable form of agriculture, which is beneficial to the environment and increases yield of food and forage crops through the pollination action of bees. Beekeeping is a very long-standing practice among the farming communities of Ethiopia. It is a promising sideline farm activity for the rural households. It directly and indirectly contributes to the income of households and the economy of the nation (Martin 2012).

Despite the long beekeeping tradition, having the highest bee density and being the leading honey producer as well as one of the largest beeswax exporting countries in Africa, the share of the apiculture sub-sector to the gross domestic product (GDP) has been minimal in Ethiopia. Productivity of the subsector has always been low, leading to low utilization of hive products domestically and relatively low export earnings (MoARD 2010). Thus, the beekeepers in particular and the country in general are not benefiting from the subsector as expected (Tadesse 2001; Adgaba 2002). This is because apiculture is one of the sub-sectors of agriculture that received limited attention in the country.

Recently, the contribution of beekeeping to poverty reduction, sustainable development and conservation of natural resources has been recognized and well emphasized by the government of Ethiopia and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country. The Amhara regional government and the study area (Sekota district) in particular have recently put beekeeping as one of the important development strategies to reduce poverty and to diversify farmers’ income and national export commodities. In Sekota district, NGOs like Save the Children (UK) and Organization for Rehabilitation and Development of Amhara Region (ORDA) had put the beekeeping subsector as one of their development priorities (SWARDO 2009).

In the eastern parts of the Amhara Regional State, large areas of inaccessible lands (escarpments, hills and undulating mountains) for crop cultivation and livestock grazing are covered with various types of bushes and make this part of the region a relatively potential area for beekeeping (BoA 2010). Sekota district which is located in the eastern part of the Amhara Region is identified to be potential area for beekeeping.

Postharvest handling of honey and constraints and opportunities of beekeeping in Sekota district are not well documented. Hence, studying postharvest handling of honey and the constraints and opportunities of beekeeping is important to identify problems and potentials associated with honeybee production and honey handling and to formulate appropriate development strategies pertinent to beekeeping in the study area. Thus, this study was designed to assess postharvest handling of honey and to identify the constraints and opportunities of honeybee production in Sekota district.

Materials and methods

Sekota district (Figure 1) comprises a total of 33 peasant associations (PAs) which are classified into three highland, 24 midland and six lowland areas. From these two, three and four peasant associations were randomly selected from the highland, lowland and midland areas, respectively. From each selected PA, a total of 90 households ten from each PA were selected purposively based on their experience in apiculture and participation in extension service. The experience in beekeeping and activity in extension service were identified by the help of development agents of the respective PA. Single household respondent, one who is responsible for keeping the bees, was used as sampling unit in this study.

Primary data were collected through household interviews, informal group discussions and key informants through a semi-structured questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed to generate data on household profiles (sex, age, family size, education level, livestock and crop production), honeybee production systems (number and types of hives used, type of beekeeping equipment used), types of honeybee floras, honey flow season, trend of honey yield and price of honey over years in the study area.

Pre-testing of the questionnaire and record sheets were made as a pilot survey and on the basis of information obtained at this stage, modifications were made on the questionnaire. The collection of information was made at household level. Secondary data, which is used to supplement the primary data, was obtained from reports of previous research findings and other published and unpublished materials. The data collected were analyzed by descriptive statistics using SPSS software version 12 (SPSS 2002).

Figure 1. Map of Waghimra Zone (A) and Sekota district (B). Areas marked by the star symbols are the study sites (selected peasant associations).
Source: GIS Team of Amhara national regional state of Ethiopia

Results and Discussion

Profiles of the Sample Households

The ratio of the total beekeepers to the total household heads in the interviewed peasant associations was found to be 0.22, which is above the national average ratio of beekeepers to agricultural household numbers of 0.1 (MoARD 2010; CSAE 2009). This indicates that beekeeping is an important income generating activity for relatively large number of farmers in the study area.

This indicates that majority of the beekeepers (89%) in the study area are men (Table 1), although beekeeping is an activity which can be done regardless of sex. The result of this study is in agreement with the work of Ejigu et al (2007) who indicated that beekeeping was the dominant occupation of men and only a few women beekeepers were found in Enebse district. This is due to the traditional idea that underlines beekeeping to be men’s job owing to the physical activity it requires.

The family size of the interviewed beekeepers ranges from one to 13. Majority of the respondents (71%) had a family size of greater than five (Table 1). The mean number of children per respondent was 3.23. All the interviewed beekeepers were within the age groups ranging from 20 to 65 years (Table 1) which indicates that the majority of the respondents are found in economically active age groups. Thus, there is high potential of labor input for beekeeping in the study area.

Table 1 . Demographic characteristics of the respondents (n=90)

Household Characteristics

% Of Total Respondents

Sex of household heads





Age of household heads

20 to 30 years


31 to 40 years


41 to 65 years


Education level of household heads



Reading and writing


Grade 1-8


Grade 9-12


Family size per household

One to 5


Six to 13


n = number of interviewed beekeepers

About 46% of the beekeeping household heads had attended formal education while 36.7% were illiterate (Table 1). The rest of the respondents were those who can read and write but did not attend formal education. Educational level of the farming households can have significant importance in identifying and determining the type of development and extension services that need to be designed for the area. Gichora (2003) indicated that for more advanced beekeeping, one should have a good understanding of bee biology and behavior and needs to exercise better bee colony management practice. The result of this study indicates that most respondents of the study area can easily adopt the extension services and bee related technologies provided.

Opportunities and Potentials of Honeybee Production
Beekeeping experience of the farmers

The level of beekeepers’ experience considered in this study is number of years that an individual was continuously engaged in beekeeping after he/she had his/her own colonies. The interviewed beekeepers had a long experience in traditional beekeeping ranging from two to forty years (Table 2). Majority of the respondents (57.7%) have an experience of 11 to 40 years in traditional beekeeping. On average, the interviewed beekeepers have an experience of 14 years in traditional beekeeping.

Table 2 . Beekeeping experience by the interviewed respondents (n=90)

Experience in Beekeeping

% Of Total Respondents

2 to 5 years


6 to 10 years


> 11 years


n = total number of respondents

Placement of honeybee colonies and type of hive products produced

In the study area, hives were exclusively (100%) placed at backyards (Figure 2). Where trees are abundant, few beekeepers hang traditional hives on tree branches for the purpose of catching swarms. This indicates that backyard beekeeping is a common practice of honey production in the study area.

Figure 2. Backyard beekeeping in Sekota district
Focus given to the subsector

The apiculture subsector of the study area has been given attention by the government in recent years. As the lead potential area in the region, beekeeping is among the development priorities to Waghimra Zone in general and Sekota district in particular. Due to the policy support, though very recently, the availability of technologies and credit services enabled beekeepers of the study area to get appreciable income from the subsector.

Indigenous beekeeping knowledge of the respondents

Beekeepers of the study area know very well the time when their honeybee colonies will swarm. When the swarming time of their honeybee colonies approach, the women or the children will stay at home to catch the swarm when men go to farms. Some women and children are capable of catching the swarm and establishing new colony but others call men from farms or neighbors to catch the swarm. Even though swarming does occur, the chance of escaping from the hands of the beekeepers is very low in the study area.

In the study area, honey is traditionally used to cure a number of diseases. These include wounds, septicemia, colic, common cold, hemorrhoids, wound, teeth and throat diseases (Table 3). Majority of the respondents (90%) use honey to treat wounds (injuries). According to the belief of the beekeepers, honey harvested on October 17th (in Ethiopian calendar) has special medicinal value. Scientific studies need to be conducted to confirm this indigenous knowledge (folk medicine).

Beekeepers of the area use the seeds of noug (Guizotia abyssinica) to smoke beehives on July 5th (Ethiopian calendar) which is the onset of nectar flow season most of the time in the study area. According to the belief of the beekeepers of the study area, the smoke of noug seeds makes the colony strong, active and productive for the incoming season. According to the respondents, smoke of Egula and Shisha (local plant spp.) is poisonous to honeybees. For catching of swarms, the beekeepers commonly use identified types of swarm attractant plants. According to the respondents, any type of internal colony inspection before 5th July (in Ethiopian calendar) is forbidden and if one does this, the colonies will be disturbed and finally abscond. The inspection of hives starts on this day using seeds of noug as a smoker fuel.

Table 3. Indigenous knowledge of the respondents on the quality and medicinal values of honey (n = 90)

Indigenous knowledge of the beekeepers

% of total respondents

Signs observed when adulterated with sugar

Identification of adulteration of honey

Stretching capacity


-Does not stretch longer

Flavour of honey


-Burning effect on tongue and loss of natural flavor



-Heavy smoke

Immersing hot metal rod


-“Tit tit” sound

Diseases treated with honey

Wounds (injuries)


Septicemia, teeth, throat




Common cold





The beekeepers are also able to identify pure and adulterated honeys by different techniques. Some of the techniques used are as follows: when honey adulterated with sugar is fired, more and heavy smoke is observed unlike the pure honey; when honey adulterated with sugar is consumed, there is a sense of burning effect on the tongue unlike the pure honey; when a heated metal rode is immersed in honey adulterated with sugar, a ”tit tit” sound is heard unlike the pure honey; when honey is adulterated with sugar, the natural smell and taste of honey is lost and when honey is adulterated with sugar, the stretching capacity of honey is decreased, i.e., if you put your finger in the honey and raise your finger high, it shouldn't break if the honey is pure, although it gets very thin (like a thread) but if it's adulterated, it will keep breaking and doesn't follow your finger (Table 3). Majority of the respondents use the stretching capacity of honey (71.1%) and flavor of honey (62.2%) to differentiate adulterated honey from pure honey.

Major Constraints to Honey Production

Drought (shortage of rainfall) was the primary honeybee production constraint and a threatening factor according to the interviewed beekeepers (52.2%) followed by pests and predators. The third limiting factor for the development of apiculture in the study area is shortage of bee colony and application of chemicals (Table 4). High price and shortage of modern beehives, shortage of beekeeping equipment, shortage of bee forage, high temperature, absconding, shortage of water and the prevalence of honeybee diseases are also limiting factors for the development of apiculture in the area (Table 4).

Table 4.  Constraints of honeybee production in Sekota district (n=90)   


% Of Total Respondents

Drought (lack of rainfall)


Pests and predators


Application of chemicals 


Shortage of honeybee colony


High price and shortage of beehives


Shortage of bee forage


Shortage and poor quality of beekeeping equipment




High temperature

Shortage of water



Honeybee diseases


n = total number of respondents 

Recurrent drought

Recurrent drought in the area caused loss of crops and reduction of animal numbers as a result the community became food insecure. To cope up with this situation, the community was forced to collect fire wood as a means of earning money to buy grains. This had a negative consequence on bee forages. Drought (shortage of rainfall) also caused decrease in honeybee forages and availability of water to honeybees.

The forest and bush cover of Sekota district is concentrated in specific areas most of which are communally owned or owned by churches (Figure 3B). The topography is dominated by a number of deep gorges, ups and downs and series of rugged massif (uneven mountains) (Figure 3A).


Figure 3.  Rugged massif terrain (A) and bush cover in church owned areas (B) in Sekota district

Pests and predators

The most important pests and predators of honeybees identified by the sampled beekeepers in the area were wax moth, bee-eater birds, ants (black), spider, bee lice, honey badger (Mellivora capensis), lizard and red ant (Figure 4). Honey badger and bee lice were very common in the lowlands and bee-eater birds in the highland peasant associations. The other pests and predators were equally important to all agro-ecologies. Ethiopia, as one of the tropical countries, is favorable for different kinds of pests and predators that attack honeybees (Begna 2001). So pests and predators in the country in general and in the study area in particular are becoming nuisances to the honeybees and also to the beekeepers.

Figure 4. Pests and predators of honeybees in Sekota district

About 46% of the respondents claimed that the primary and most important pest in their apiaries was wax moth (Galleria mellonella). Beekeepers who had less experience in beekeeping were found not having continuous follow up and do not remove the combs affected by wax moth larvae from their colony. Dirty combs infested with wax moth larvae might force the colony to leave. Such bee combs should be removed from the hive and could be melted for use again as foundation sheet (Chandler 1976). This could be the reason why the study area’s honeybees were more affected and highly infested by this important honeybee enemy, wax moth, which was reported as the major enemy to their honeybees. In the contrary, Kebede et al (2008) has reported ants as the most harmful pest in Amhara region.

About 29% and 19% of the interviewed beekeepers listed bee-eater birds and ants as the most noxious enemies to their honeybees. Hence, birds and ants are the second and third important enemies of honeybees in the study area, respectively. The beekeepers protect bee-eater birds by different techniques: by placing gums of plants where the birds rest near the apiary, killing the birds using smoke at their nest and by chasing away the birds at times when the birds visit the apiary, i.e., around 10 am in the morning and 5 pm in the afternoon. At these times, the beekeepers protect their colonies from bee-eater birds. Spiders, bee lice (Braula coecal), honey badger, lizard and red ant were also other most important honeybee pests and predators in the study area (Figure 4). These five honeybee enemies are relatively less threatening to honeybees as compared to pests and predators mentioned earlier.


A disease which respondents call locally as mich (a disease of animals or plants caused by sun rays) occasionally occurs in honeybee colonies in the study area. This disease is related to rust disease of crops. According to the opinion of the interviewed beekeepers, mich usually occurs in the colonies between August and October at the time when crops are affected by rust. It is caused by a rain drop in May. When there is a rain drop in May (time of high temperature), the rain associated with the high temperature affects the soil that in turn affects the floras of the surroundings. These affected floras (‘mich affected plants’ as named by the respondents) grow unhealthy flowers. The honeybees when visiting these flowers are then attacked by this disease as described by the interviewed beekeepers.

About 74% of the interviewed beekeepers claimed that their honeybee colonies had been affected by mich at least once in the last three years, while the rest (26%) did not encounter the disease in their honeybee colonies. The disease affects both adult and brood stages of honeybees. If bees are affected by this disease, there is a symptom of mass death of bees at the hive entrance and no honey yield is expected from such colony. Hence, this disease (mich) must be scientifically investigated in order to devise appropriate prevention and control methods for beekeepers of the district.


List of agrochemicals officially distributed from the district agricultural office to the farmers are indicated in Table 5. In addition to these chemicals, there were unknown chemicals purchased from black markets. Pesticides (usually DDT) are applied to control pests of crops, external parasite of sheep and goats and parasites of household pests (bugs and fleas) as well as malaria in the study area.

Table 5. Pesticides and herbicides distributed by the Office of Agriculture to farmers of Sekota district

Name of Chemicals

Used to Control


Crop pests and external parasites of sheep and goats


Crop pests


Ants that attack teff and household pestsa

2, 4-D



Household pests and seed parasites

a The common household pests are bugs and fleas

 Although the beekeepers of the area are still suffering from application of chemicals, there is a significant attitude change and awareness creation in the community of the district about the negative impact of chemicals on honeybees. A natural method of controlling crop pests, integrated pest management, has been given a great emphasis by the Agricultural Office of the district and is widely practiced by the community of the study area. Agrochemicals are legally allowed to be used by farmers if the infestation of crops is very high. So the observed negative impact of these agrochemicals on honeybee colonies in the area was caused by non-beekeepers and irresponsible farmers who spray chemicals illegally on crops and residential areas. The effects of these chemicals on honeybee colonies vary from weakening the honeybee colonies (decreasing production) to total loss of the colonies.

Toxic/poisonous plants

About 42% of the interviewed beekeepers reported the existence of toxic or poisonous plants in the study area (Table 6). Neem tree (Azadirachta indica), Bahirsuf (Helianthus annuus), Tihan tila (Verbena officinalis), Kinchib (Euphorbia tirucalli), Ater (Pisum sativum) and Kalkalda (Euphorbia spp.) were the major plants reported to be poisonous to honeybees in the area (Table 6).

Some of the above listed plants kill the bees by poisoning them and others by damaging their physical bodies. Honey from some of these plants were also reported to cause irritation on consumers’ throat, i.e., honey from such plants is unsuitable to consume. According to the respondents, Azadirachta indica, Helianthus annuus, Verbena officinalis and Pisum sativum have a damaging effect on honeybees while honey from Euphorbia tirucalli and Euphorbia spp. cause irritation on consumers’ throat. Flowers of Helianthus annuus and Verbena officinalis have damaging effect on bodies of the honeybees whereas flowers of Azadirachta indica and Pisum sativum are reported as honeybee killers (Table 6).

Adgaba (2002) reported some poisonous bee plants from Northern regions of Ethiopia that include the familiesRanuculaceae, Solanaceae, Acanthacae, Euphorbiaceae and Phytolacaceae. Similarly, in the study area Euphorbia tirucalli and Euphorbia spp. from the family Euphorbiaceae had been identified as being poisonous by the beekeepers of the study area. But there are also other poisonous plants identified by the local beekeepers which are not mentioned by Adgaba (2002) (Table 6). Hence, the indigenous knowledge of the local beekeepers of the study area should be further studied and proved by scientific investigations to verify their poisonous status.

Table 6. Plants poisonous to honeybees as reported by the respondents (n=90)

Local Name

Scientific Name

Family Name

Plant Type

Effect Ona

% Of total respondents

Neem tree

Azadirachta indica






Helianthus annuus


Cultivated crop



Tihan tila

Verbena officinalis






Pisum sativum


Cultivated crop




Euphorbia tirucalli






Euphorbia spp.





n = total number of respondents; a The effect of the plants includes damage on physical body of the bees, killing of the bees
and the honey produced from these flora are unsuitable for consumption by humans.

High price of modern hives and honeybee colonies

Modern hive and honeybee colony are the basic inputs needed to start and engage on improved apiculture. As a result, the price of these inputs is the major determining factor that limits expansion of improved beekeeping in the study area. The costs of these materials are relatively very high and beyond the purchasing power of poor farmers in the study area. Fortunately, these inputs were supplied by governmental and nongovernmental organizations to the beekeepers of the area on credit bases so that the beekeepers will pay back in three years loan period.

The price of a modern hive (zander hive) had risen from 283.26 to 571 ETB while the price of honeybee colony on average had risen from 200 to 274 ETB over the three consecutive years (2007-2009) in the study area (Figure 5). The continuous increment in the price of the basic inputs would hinder many poor farmers from engaging on and expanding modern apiculture unless credits are made available to the farmers.

Figure 5. Trends in price of modern hive and honeybee colonies over three years in the study area (HBC= honeybee colony)
Post-harvest handling of honey

Once honey is produced it should be handled properly to maintain its quality for a longer time. Temperature and humidity are the most important environmental factors that can deteriorate the quality of honey. So the type of container and honey storage place should be carefully selected. Bogdanov (2009) reported that the optimum temperature and relative humidity of honey storage rooms are 10-16oC and less than 65%, respectively. Honey storage containers should be made out of aluminum, stainless steel and plastic materials (Bogdanov 2009).

Honey could be stored for different reasons. In the study area honey is stored for the following reasons: for medicinal value, to get higher price, for women who will give birth and to entertain respected guests. Majority of the sample beekeepers (55%) do not store their honey; they sale it immediately to their customers in less than one month time after harvest (Table 7). The length of storage of honey by the sampled beekeepers ranged from less than a month to greater than two years (Table 7). The beekeepers who store honey from one month to one year do so with the intention to get higher price for their honey. These groups of beekeepers store the whole honey they produce till the price of honey rises. On the other hand, the beekeepers who store honey for more than one year, store a portion of their produce and they do so for its medicinal value, for women who will give birth and to entertain respected guests. Only a few beekeepers (4.4%) store honey for more than two years.

Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), earthen pot, plastics and animal skins were the most important honey storage materials used by the respondents (Table 7). Most of the respondents indicated that the former most common storage material for their honey was gourd but now plastic containers are replacing it. The reasons for adoption of plastics as honey containers in the study area were: the extension service provided by Sekota District Agricultural and Rural Development Office (awareness creation on the effect of containers on honey quality), the preference of customers, relatively cheap price and availability of the container in the area. Majority of the interviewed beekeepers (67.8%) use plastic containers for storage of honey. This result is in agreement with the report of Gichora (2003) who indicated that plastic containers are ideal for maintaining the quality of honey.

Table 7 . Duration of storage and type of containers used to store honey as reported by the respondents (n=90)

Duration of honey storage

Containers used


% of Total Respondents



% of Total Respondents

< one month




1-12 months


Earthen pot


1-2 years




>2 years



Animal skin


The drawbacks of each container used in the study area were reported by the respondents as follows. Gourd allows entry of red ants via the mouth of the container into the honey and it is easily broken during transportation. The respondents also reported that gourd allows loss of moisture from honey during dry period. Whereas earthen pots are heavy to hold and transport and entry of red ants into the pots were reported. The entry of red ants into the containers were due to the incompatibility of the lid with the main body of the container. In addition, unless the container is tight, it will absorb moisture from the environment and honey start fermenting during humid conditions (Marieke 2005). The problems observed regarding plastic were that they are damaged by rats and become hot when the environmental temperature rises. Animal skins change the original taste of the honey and are damaged by rats. Moreover, Adgaba (1991) reported that all local containers used in Ethiopia are not appropriate to store consumable honey for a longer time.



This study was funded by the Rural Capacity Building Project of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Ethiopia.


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Received 9 December 2014; Accepted 25 March 2015; Published 1 May 2015

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