An Innovative Beehive Protects the Pollinators


While farmers in Zimbabwe typically rely on chemicals, an inventor is thinking of the bees.

A bright, peach-colored beehive sits on display at a graduation ceremony at Marymount Teachers College in Zimbabwe’s eastern border city of Mutare. The college boasts a state-of-the-art apiary, part of a public-private partnership to further Zimbabwe’s education development initiative.

The hive — dubbed the MacJohnson hive — is sandwiched between two others: a more common Langstroth hive, and a hive for stingless bees. Beside them, a few bottles of processed honey stand atop a table. But it is the MacJohnson hive — which protects bees from insecticides and herbicides — that inspires the most curiosity, in part because of its unique hut shaped entrance.

“Huts are African,” explains Ishmael Sithole, inventor of the hive and chairperson of the Manicaland Apiculture Association

Sithole, a beekeeper himself, knows practically everything worth knowing about beekeeping in Zimbabwe, from bee behavior to the country’s complicated bee laws. 

His expertise is important — with severe droughts leading to failing crops in Zimbabwe, thousands of small-scale farmers are turning to beekeeping to offset losses. Many use archaic hives from hollowed-out logs. However, agriculture in Zimbabwe relies heavily on insecticides and herbicides. “Insecticides weaken bee colonies, and weak bee colonies are less productive,” says Sithole. 

Zimbabwe’s Bees Act regulates how bees and bee-related activities should be conducted, Sithole explains. For instance, beekeepers must notify farmers within five kilometers (three miles) of their apiaries that they are keeping bees. Farmers, in turn, are expected to notify beekeepers at least forty-eight hours in advance of applying insecticides and/or herbicides — including a description of what they’re using and the method of application.

The underlying assumption, Sithole adds, is that the beekeepers will inspect their hives, provide supplementary feeding, if necessary, and then confine their bees to their hives while insecticides and herbicides are applied.

However, many of these new beekeepers are still losing their bee colonies, as the traditional hives can’t protect the bees from chemicals used in farming. “Unfortunately,” Sithole says, “most hives in use in Zimbabwe do not allow the beekeeper to confine his bees safely in the hive with ease.”  But that, he says, is where the MacJohnson hive stands out. The MacJohnson hive is made using marine grade glue, well-seasoned timber, and chipboard screws to make it compact and immune to weather change defects. 

What’s more, he adds, “It gives bees entrance and exit points on one side of the hive, which are a series of precisely 10mm holes which [protect] the hive from invasion by large hive beetles — a menace in other hive technologies in use in Zimbabwe.” When farmers are applying insecticides and herbicides, Sithole says, a beekeeper using the MacJohnson hive can easily confine bees by placing a metal screen over the hive entrance. “No other hive technology in use in Zimbabwe currently offers this option.” Sithole invented the breakthrough hive in 2021, and in 2022 he received the Best Climate Smart Award for small and medium-sized enterprises from Zimbabwe's Ministry of Women's Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development.

Sithole is proud of his invention and confident of the role it can play in protecting bees. “The MacJohnson hive will change the face of beekeeping not only in Zimbabwe, but regionally and internationally,” he says. “Beekeepers will be better positioned to protect their bee colonies against agrochemical poisoning during foraging trips.”

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Andrew Mambondiyani
Andrew Mambondiyani
Andrew Mambondiyani is a journalist based in Zimbabwe with bylines in The Telegraph, BBC, MIT Technology Review, Yale E360, The Telegraph, Aljazeera, Mongabay, and The Daily Beast, among others.
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