Global honey demand typically exceeds supply, but analysts are concerned that this relationship may be tipping further into imbalance. This concern is driven in part by an alarming reality: bee colonies throughout the United States (US) and Europe are dying abruptly and quickly.
European honey bees, also known as Western honey bees, inhabit a wide area, ranging from Europe to the Americas and parts of the Middle East and Africa. Since 2006, these bees have been disappearing at alarming rates, due to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In affected colonies, worker bees suddenly abandon their hives, leaving only the queen and the youngest bees behind. The worker bees never return, so the consequences to pollination and honey production are devastating. It is unclear as to what exactly causes CCD—scientists have argued that it may be the result of pesticides, fungicides, loss of habitat, or parasites.
Others argue that there is no one cause of CCD, and that the disorder is the result of the concurrence of the aforementioned issues.
Luckily for Ethiopia, the species of bees that inhabit the country are distinct from the affected Western group, and CCD has not yet posed a threat. This may present an opportunity for Ethiopian honey exports and production to grow.
In 2012, Ethiopia produced close to 46,000 tonnes of honey—a significant increase from the 29,000 tonnes it produced in 2000. In fact, honey production in the country has been growing by a compound annual growth rate of 3.9 percent since the turn of the century. This steady, strong growth has meant that in the past decade, Ethiopian honey production has surpassed that of Canada, landing the East African country in its current spot as the ninth largest producer in the world and the largest producer in Africa.
The country’s combination of high-altitude terrain and diverse plant species provides an ideal environment for bees and honey production. The type of honey produced by a bee colony will depend on what type of nectar those bees have been feeding on. With thousands of plants that bees can use, there are many different varieties of honey produced. It can be either single-flower or multi-flower in origin, meaning that bees may tap into a single plant species or several different ones to build their honeycombs.
Though there are many high-quality varieties of honey produced in Ethiopia, there is one in particular that is highly prized by consumers—white honey from the northernmost province of Tigray. The honey is derived from the nectar of plants in the Lamiaceae family (which includes sage, rosemary, basil, as well as several other aromatic herbs) and is revered for its unusual flavor. As a result, it tends to fetch higher prices.
Ethiopia has between eight and 10 million bee colonies, and about 7.5 million of these are human-managed. Human- managed colonies can take many forms, but at the most basic level they mean that people provide some type of enclosure for the bees, offering protection from predators and allowing bees to dedicate all their time and energy to honey production. Most Ethiopian honey is harvested twice a year, in October-November and April-June. But in some places, like the Bench-Maji zone within the southern region of the country, harvesting takes place all year round.
These conditions are extremely favorable compared to those in the US, the world’s fifth-largest producer, which has just 2.5 million managed bee colonies and a temperate climate which typically lends itself to just one harvesting period each year. Yet despite these differences, Ethiopia accounts for just 2.9 percent of global honey production compared to America’s 4.2 percent.
This discrepancy is due to differences in production methods. Although most Ethiopian hives are human-managed, the nature of such management is less effective than it is in places like the US. Close to 96 percent of Ethiopia’s honey comes from traditional hives, which offer the basic minimum of enclosures—which can take the form of a hollowed log, a clay formation, or a mud-based structure. Although it protects bees from the elements, traditional hives do not provide any sort of internal structure, which means that the bees must create their own honeycombs.
Honeycombs are the hexagonal structures made of beeswax and built by bees to store their honey. Beeswax secretion is time consuming and hugely energy-intensive for the bees, and as a result, honey production suffers when bees need to make honeycombs. And in order for keepers to harvest from these traditional hives, they must manually squeeze the liquid out of the honeycombs—a process which destroys the structures that the bees spend time and energy creating. Yields for this kind of beekeeping typically range from five to seven kilograms per hive.
In modern hives beekeepers use artificial structures that mimic the shape and size of natural honeycombs. As a result, the bees expend less energy on producing wax and more energy on producing honey. These wooden or plastic structures typically take the form of individual sheets that are stacked on top of or next to each other, allowing keepers to easily remove one sheet without damaging bees or other sheets. Once keepers remove a sheet, they can extract the honey using a combination of manual labor and machinery, and once all the honey is removed, the structure can be used again the following year.
With these modern, well-managed production methods, hive yields can easily exceed 50 kilograms annually per hive. Compared to this, Ethiopia’s honey production is less than one-tenth of what it could potentially be.
Ethiopia’s traditional method does have at least one advantage—high beeswax production. In fact, Ethiopia produces the second-largest amount of beeswax in the world, second only to India. Although perhaps less glamorous than honey, beeswax has a multitude of uses.It is used as a cosmetics ingredient, a food additive, and as a candle making component. The beeswax industry is vibrant and lucrative, and its price by weight often exceeds that of honey.
Honing in on the Honey Problem
In January 2015, the average global bulk price for one pound of raw honey was $1.94. That same month, wholesale prices were $5.00 per pound, compared to $2.75 in January 2006.
Honey is globally becoming more expensive and the price for premium, pure honey is likely to continue to rise even faster.
And yet between 2008-2014, ninth largest global producer Ethiopia earned just $14 million on honey exports, which went mainly to Norway, Sudan, and Germany. The sum may be small, but it is reflective of the 13,890 tonnes of exports from this period. Almost all Ethiopian honey is consumed domestically. About 80 percent of all honey goes to the production of tej,a popular national honey wine. Five percent is consumed at the rural household level, and the remaining 15 percent is table honey that is either consumed domestically or exported.
Ethiopia’s love for honey is unlikely to change, and demand is likely to increase as global population grows and purchasing power increases. If the country is going to increase its export earnings the nature of production will have to change.
Perhaps the most important thing that Ethiopian honey farmers can do is to adopt modern forms of beekeeping. If keepers were able to afford modern hive equipment, the increase to their yields would be staggering.
Ethiopian policymakers have included honey as one of their priority products under the government’s flagship Agricultural Growth Program (AGP). This will aim to provide honey farmers with better access to finance and technology. Such efforts are also being buoyed by groups including Slow Food Africa, SNV, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), who are working towards improving honey market linkages while also supporting refinery-building efforts.
This last aspect of refinery-building is very important. Most Ethiopian honey enters the market in its raw, unrefined form and can contain a significant amount of impurities. While raw honey may be the norm in local markets, it is not widely accepted among Ethiopia’s existing trade partners. Ethiopia will therefore have to drastically improve its refining and packaging capacity before it ramps up exports, a move which will also help ensure the country exports the highest-value products possible.
The emphasis on modernization of hive methods will eventually translate into a drop in Ethiopian beeswax production. By prioritizing honey, policymakers are making a judgment call on the comparative value of the two goods—and it appears to be the right one. Producing wax takes much more energy on the part of bees compared to honey, which means that bees are capable of producing much more honey than wax. While the price of one kilogram of wax may exceed the price of honey, the ability for Ethiopia to produce at least ten times more honey through hive modernization makes the change in priorities and production methods logical.
While Ethiopia might be fortunate enough to have evaded CCD, it is not immune to phenomena like climate change and drought, which can have devastating effects on bee populations. As Ethiopia develops its honey industry, it will be essential that policymakers encourage research and the development of knowledge around honeybees. Developments must also be made in the mechanics of honey production, with more cost effective means to produce and harvest the honey without causing damage to hives and honeycombs. Global demand for honey continues to increase, and with Ethiopia’s diverse plant community honey production could increase tremendously.