NEWS | Sept. 15, 2009

Afghan farmers bolster income with bees

By Capt. John T. Stamm , Panjshir PRT

A beekeeper in the Dara district of Afghanistan’s Panjshir province tends to one of his hives.
A beekeeper in the Dara district of Afghanistan’s Panjshir province tends to one of his hives.

BAGRAM AIRFIELD (Afghanistan, Sept. 15, 2009) – In an effort to increase agricultural productivity and boost economic capacity, 450 families throughout Afghanistan’s Panjshir province were supplied with training and materials to operate and manage their own honey production businesses.

The program, sponsored by the province’s agriculture ministry, began in July 2008 with the delivery of 900 bee boxes called “lower deep supers,” or brood chambers, complete with a queen bee and a starter colony.

Initially, starter colonies produce only enough honey to survive, but as the colonies continue to grow, they produce excess honey that can be harvested. This natural progression requires an “excluder” for the queen, “deep upper supers” for the bees and additional training for the beekeepers.

“The deep uppers are where the bees store the excess honey that will be harvested and will allow the queen growing room for the colony to keep them from swarming to another location,” said Greg Schlenz, a U.S. Department of Agriculture representative to the provincial reconstruction team. “The training is necessary to ensure understanding in bee colony development and use of received materials.”

Local residents said they had no recollection of a substantial honeybee population ever existing in the province. Abdulla Shah, a lifelong resident of the valley, said Dara district had some honeybee hives prior to the team’s arrival, but doesn’t know what happened to them.

“I remember seeing the hives and the farmers selling honey in Dara about five years ago,” Shah said. “But, I don’t remember them anywhere else in Panjshir, not even as a child.”

Bees are a vital component in pollination, a process by which the male cells of a plant are carried to the female cells of another, which enables fertilization. This process is necessary in agriculture, because 80 percent of plant fertilization occurs by animal interaction. Without pollination, plants can’t bear fruit or reproduce.

“Pollination was the No. 1 reason for bringing bees into the province,” Schlenz said. “The secondary reason was the honey production.”

A single beehive can pollinate a three-mile radius and produce more than six pounds of harvestable honey a year. In Panjshir, the price of honey is between 300 and 1,000 afghanis per kilogram, or about $6 a pound. This translates into about $42 per hive per year, a substantial supplement to the average Afghan farmer’s income of about $400 a year.

Abdullah, a farmer in the province’s Khenj district, is a participant in the beekeeping project. His farm has grown from two to five hives in just one season, and he recently harvested almost 18 pounds of honey.

“This has been very good for my family,” Abdullah said. “I have the honey for my family, and the bees have increased the pollination in my fields.”

The beneficiaries of the starter bee farms were handpicked by the Panjshir director of agriculture through consultations during community council meetings. The recipients had to meet stringent criteria and attend four weeks of training, which included biology, species, identification, raising and caring techniques, maintenance, pollination, production and harvesting, and basic business and marketing skills.

The project not only benefits the ecosystem, but also builds capacity through cooperation. Only two honey extractors are within each of Panjshir’s seven districts, with beekeepers having to share the equipment. Through this process, beekeepers share experience, knowledge and information.

“It’s a win-win project where, agriculturally, we are seeing an increase in fruit, vegetables, wild flowers, clovers, alfalfas and other plants,” Schlenz said. “Secondly, the farmers are earning an extra income they probably never thought would occur from bees.”