He knows each of his bees by name and houses them in a special apiary, which appears better than his house.
That is how much farmer Mark Livaha loves his stingless bees that he keeps in his homestead in Ileho village, Kakamega County.
The bees ‘live’ in an apiary made of mud, with the walls having colourful African artwork.
The grass-thatched apiary is home to 120 colonies of six species of the stingless bees.
“These bees are sensitive to weather. They do not like a hot environment, the reason why the grass-thatched roof works well for them because it prevents heat.”
But there is a better reason why the farmer keeps the bees in the apiary. The insects have become a tourist attraction, attracting visitors from across the country and outside who visit his farm to learn.
He holds classes for them in the grass-thatched apiary, with the agri-tourism activities bringing in more money for him.
Livaha hunts for the stingless bees in the nearby Kakamega forest and domesticates them. Each colony, he explains, has a special type of hive.
“There are those stingless bees that are found in anthills while others in tree cavities. I keep the bees I source from anthills inside pots to give them an earth feeling. However, those I get from tree cavities easily adapt to the normal beehives,” says Livaha, who is following in his father’s footsteps.
He started in 1990s with one species of stingless bees which he got from an anthill and kept in old earthen pots.
His major breakthrough came 11 years ago when the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) helped him advance his beekeeping business by organising farmers in groups.
“ICIPE brought many of us small farmers together. We had 30 hives and they were put on my farm because I was the only one who had started domesticating the bees. Each of us went separate ways after the project.”
Livaha harvests five to 20 litres of the highly medicinal honey, which he sells at Sh1,000 each. When well-fed, he says, the bees can produce up to 40 litres of honey, harvested twice, annually.
Over the years, his colonies have increased from 20 to 70. Although he keeps both the honey bee and the stingless bees, he says demand for the stingless bees honey is growing.
He strives to double his colonies through a process he describes as colony division, which he teaches his visitors.
“I separate bees that have up to three queens in one hive. I then lock them in a new brooder for three days during which they are fed with sugar solution for them to be familiar with the new territory,” he says.
To domesticate the bees, Livaha advises that a farmer first needs to plant feeding resources. “Pigeon peas, sunflower and trees are an attractive sight for the insects which love pollen.”
Livaha receives approximately 30 visitors in a month, some from out of the country, who visit to learn about his job.
He charges from Sh4,000 to Sh10,000 per individual.
“Foreign visitors pay Sh10,000. Mostly they come in pairs from as far as Ghana and Congo and are referred to me by ICIPE. I offer lessons in stingless beekeeping that include colony division, keeping the insects in best apiaries and the feeds they need. During the dry season for instance, one should make a sugar solution for the bees. The lessons last four to six hours.”
Blaise Okinyi, an officer at the National Beekeeping Station, says that stingless bees are not widely kept thus a farmer rearing them can earn good money from teaching others.
“Farmers are not adequately informed about stingless bees and the number of experts who know them are few. At times we send farmers to others who already have the bees for lessons.”
Demand for the stingless bee honey is growing, according to Blaise, however, supply is low.