While many would cringe in fear at the idea of working with bees, Roland Graf Zu Bentheim has made beekeeping his life.
He inherited his love for beekeeping and the entire business from his father, who passed away in 1998, leaving him to continue the Bentheim bee legacy.
Eighteen years later, Bentheim is one of 500 beekeepers in the country.
“Bees are my life; people fear them, but what they do not know is that they are very beneficial to humanity’s survival,” he said.
The honey bee is a major pollinator of many of our food crops, including almonds, apples, avocados, blueberries, cantaloupes, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, sunflowers, watermelon and many others.
So if honey bees disappear, due to pesticides used globally, the foods that we take for granted will decrease in supply and quality and increase in price.
Bentheim speaks passionately about the little stinging insects that he has dedicated his life to.
He was born in Namibia, but raised in Germany where he acquired his more technical knowledge about beekeeping.
From the age of eight, Bentheim would accompany his father to his beehives and watch him work. In time, his passion for bees grew.
“For one to become a beekeeper you need extensive training. It can be very dangerous if you do not know what you are doing,” he said.
The passion he has for honey bees is noticeable, as his face lights up when he describes what he does.
“Man has a long history of exploiting and mishandling bees, which is really not right,” he said.
Bentheim is so committed to bees that he sometimes offers his services free of charge to remove bees from people’s premises, just so that the bees and their hives are not destroyed.
“Local people burn down and kill bees, so that they can harvest honey or because they fear them, so I decided to also become a bee rescuer,” he said.
Bentheim has become such an expert that sometimes, when he working with the bees, he does not wear protective clothing.
Normally one would need to put on overalls and a net to cover one’s face, as well as gloves, so that you do not get stung by the bees.
For those who are allergic to bee stings, just one sting can be fatal.
“You must never show fear when you are around bees, because they can feel your fear,” Bentheim said.
On the days he travels to check up on his bees, he has to leave his home very early to drive over 20km out of town to the different locations where the bees are kept.
“The bees have to be kept far away from people, on a piece of land where they are free to fly around, collect their pollen, grow their hives and not disturb anyone,” he said.
Bentheim said he has to arrive early, when the bees are not too active, otherwise if he arrives when the sun is up, then they will be too aggressive, making his job more difficult than usual.
There are different kinds of bees found in Namibia, including the African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata), which is quite aggressive, but produces more honey.
In addition to the well-known bees, there are also smaller bees that make their nests/colonies either underground or in tree holes.
According to Bentheim, it is actually a good thing that some bees are more aggressive, as they are then better able to challenge predators who could destroy their hives.
Some of the local species known in Oshiwambo as Owishi, Elonga and Okahaupapuka, produce honey, which is sometimes even sweeter than that of ordinary bees.
Most of the beekeepers in the country harvest honey for themselves and their friends and a few bottle the sweet nectar and sell it as a sideline.
Bentheim harvests for his friends, but he sometimes sells to others at the Green Market in Klein Windhoek.
An Official Development Assistance (ODA)-funded project, which took place between 1994 and 1996, made a first-time attempt to record the occurrence of beehives in Namibia and their impact on the environment.
The study revealed that many farmers were interested in beekeeping, but only about 10 were trained.
The Directorate of Forestry has a policy of promoting beekeeping in the country. According to the Nature Conservation Ordinance Number 4 of 1975, Annex 1, it is actually illegal to destroy a bee hive in Namibia as they are protected.
Along with various flowers and flowering bushes, there are tree species known as a good source of food for bees, which include Berchemia discollor, Baobab and exotic eucalyptus. However, due to the dry climate in Namibia, including severe water shortages in many parts of the country for long periods of the year, beekeeping was found not to be a promising business, and was mainly limited to the northern parts of Namibia or in areas of higher rain fall.
The ODA-funded project concluded that beekeeping has a high potential in northern Namibia, thus it is important to intensify promotional campaigns.
But as it stands, the efforts of those who love beekeeping, to maintain the trade and keep it alive and benefit the country, have been in vain.
“About 15 years ago there was a bee association, but it died because most people in the association were old and they have been passing away,” Bentheim said.
More than 90 percent of honey eaten in the country is currently imported.
According to Bentheim, farmers need to be educated, in terms of honey harvesting skills.
“It has been learned that instead of only removing honey, farmers kill bees in the harvesting process,” he said.
Over the years, he and other beekeepers have been fighting to keep the trade alive, as many people hunt for honey, and damage or destroy the hives in the process. This hurts the bees and angers Zu Bentheim.
When he took over his father’s business, he had over 100 beehives, but now he only has 20 left, because people have been stealing and destroying his hives. Recently thieves broke into one of his bee areas and stole four bee box-hives and other equipment that reportedly cost close to N$100 000.
Thousands of honey-producing and pollinating bees have been stolen and possibly destroyed.
Zu Bentheim, or the ‘Bee King’ as many call him, cannot keep the hives in one area, because he does not have the space to put them, and thus he has to ask his friends, who own farms, to store them for him.
His plan is to acquire a plot and start a training centre, where he can train young people to become beekeepers.
“I have an idea that will create employment, but I have not been so lucky to get an area for me to achieve that dream,” he said.
Bentheim makes his income from collecting bees and honey, but he has hit hard times due to the ongoing drought.
“The bees have no food, so they do not make that much honey anymore,” he said.
Namibia needs to think outside of the box and find all avenues of job skills transfer and possible new income generating SME ideas.
As Bentheim has explained, beekeeping is clearly not a new idea, but for many jobless Namibians, looking for options, it might just be a novelty that also offers opportunity.
Why import honey when there is the possibility to sustainably harvest our own as a local product. Surely there is room in the Namibian house for bees?