SUMMER STORIES: Beekeeping in Comoros

Summer Stories from Africa is a series of fresh reflections from our students, faculty, and alumni researching and studying on the continent.

Ellen Geisler is currently working as a Peace Corps Response volunteer in Comoros, a small island nation between the African continent and Madagascar, where she is introducing beekeeping skills to Comorian men and women. Geisler is a UW-Madison alumna with degrees in Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies (BA’07) and Forestry (MS’14).

Quality Keepers: Beekeeping in Comoros

Honey harvesters in Tsinimoichongo, Comoros, learn about how bees live inside hives, with a view of the Indian Ocean in the distance. (Photo by Adam Kane)

Life in Comoros is not without hiccups. Running water and electricity are intermittent at best in the capital city, Moroni, and non-existent on the rest of the island, Grand Comore. People out and about are very nice and always want to say hello and help if they can, which is a change from living in Wisconsin where people are nice but one usually doesn’t hear a steady stream of greetings from passersby. While some locals speak French, everyone on Grand Comores speaks Shingazidja.

This summer I spend my days playing with bees, snorkeling in pristine waters, getting acquainted with the overwhelmingly welcoming locals who chatter away in the unfamiliar sounds of Shingazidja, and recalling the distant memories of last summer when I was finishing a masters degree in forestry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and tending my own beekeeping business. Comor0s is an eternal summer.

I am introducing beekeeping skills to men and women in Comoros, a small island nation between the African continent and Madagascar, which has the highest rate of deforestation among the islands in the Western Indian Ocean. The overarching goal is to slow deforestation with the idea that beekeepers will earn income from selling honey and protect the forest that provides forage and habitat for their bees.  I’m a Peace Corps Response volunteer working in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which makes this project a lucky combination of boots-on-the-ground Peace Corps spirit combined with UNDP financial and transportation resources.

Initial assessment revealed that all honey in Comoros is collected by robbing wild beehives, which results in hive destruction, personal safety risks and poor quality honey. To overcome the language barrier, I trained eight people who spoke French the basic beekeeping knowledge and skills and how to educate others about beekeeping. In July and August, these new trainers taught participants in each of their four villages about beekeeping and motivated them to overcome their fear of bees, build beehives from local materials and reap the benefits of pollination. The train-the-trainers class took place during Ramadan, when everyone was tired by noon because they were fasting and still eager to learn about beekeeping.

As for my work, I initially struggled to express the importance of working calmly and quietly when standing near a beehive. When one man in Dzahani insisted on chopping at the branch that was holding up a beehive, a loud and brusque action bound to aggravate the bees, I sat quietly and watched the chaos ensue. Words had no effect.  By the time the three future beekeepers closed the hive of angry bees, the six distant observers had scattered, chased into the forest by bees.  Only two people were stung, and they all learned that working calmly and quietly is essential. In the end, the bees themselves are the best educator about beekeeping.

Before I depart in November, we’ll organize a national conference and exposition for all the new beekeepers to meet each other, exchange ideas and raise awareness among the general population of the blossoming beekeeping industry. I’ll be back in snowy Wisconsin before I know it, and the days of playing with bees during the week and snorkeling on the weekends will be a fond memory.  I’ll always think of the Comorians I work with as my beekeepers, and I’d love to return in four or five years to see the beekeeping industry they create.

For more information, please visit the website for Geisler’s Kicking Bear Apiaries LLC or the business’ Facebook page.