How did the idea for a concrete beehive come about and what inspired you to create it?
I grew up on a nut farm where my mom kept bees. From a young age I have been aware of the important role that bees play in nature, as well as the health benefits of eating honey made from pollens and nectars found in your own area.
I became aware of the bee crisis in my fourth year of studies, while I was looking for the means to co-opt beekeeping into urban agriculture in Johannesburg, through the Izindaba Zokudla (Conversations about Food) initiative that the University of Johannesburg has pioneered.
So, although originally I was focusing on creating accessible beekeeping technology for small-scale farmers, I realised that any solution would have to also attempt to solve some of the issues that beekeepers are facing. The focus became a more sustainable and accessible beekeeping technology system to encourage farmers and beekeepers to look after their pollinators and increase their incomes to boost the industry.
Why did you choose to incorporate concrete in your design?
The biggest problems for beekeepers in South Africa are theft, vandalism, fires, honey badgers, storms, various pests and diseases. These factors, applied to the standard European-designed wooden beehives that were engineered for a different species and context, result in beekeepers losing their hives on a regular basis.
Concrete is cheap, durable and semi-natural (as bees prefer not to be in contact with plastic), providing a perfect low-tech, appropriate solution for the production of permanent beehives. By adding a natural lightweight aggregate to the concrete I was able to lighten the movable parts of the beehives and increase the insulation to help the bees with thermoregulation, thereby increasing overall production of honey by decreasing the energy consumption of the swarm.
Also, concrete is easy to work with, requiring little skill and no electrical machinery, meaning that the production process could be localised and decentralised, offering other opportunities for self-sufficient beekeeping communities to be established.
Talk us through the design of your Beegin beehive. How does it work and what makes it a sustainable system for beekeeping?
The design approach I have used is one of Appropriate Technology Development, where complex, expensive and imported designs are appropriated and reiterated to suit the local context better, increase access and promote socioeconomic development. Beegin offers the two most popular types of bee management systems: a permanent concrete Langstroth beehive and a Kenyan Top Bar beehive, which is only made from concrete.
The Langstroth beehive is well suited to larger beekeeping operations, with its standardised frames and high-yield extraction process. While the Kenyan Top Bar hive offers a simplified, low-cost option for smaller apiaries – also more suited to our aggressive African bee species and requiring less extraction equipment. The beehives are designed to be lockable, easy to use and extremely protective of the inhabitants.
I have also focused on designing affordable and very easy to use mould sets for each of the hives. The moulds can be bought, and come with instructions for people to make their own hives, to use in their apiaries or sell to their community.
Made using the suggested mix, the beehives cost the same as wooden versions to make or buy. However, they will last at least twice as long, making the value much greater. The weight of the moving parts (lids and supers) is limited to 23kgs, so the parts are manageable, but working with two people is advised (and a good way to promote skills transfer).
You’ve gone on to test your Beegin beehive with farmers and beekeepers with positive results thus far. How has it been received?
The results from the testing were positive. The beekeeping system provides the opportunity for farmers to enter into beekeeping as a supplementary activity, or at a large-scale to have control over their pollinators.
For beekeepers it provides a sustainable, permanent alternative to the standard wooden hives. For sedentary beekeepers specifically, the concrete beehives are perfect, but for migratory beekeepers the wooden hives will always be preferred.
I hope to encourage less reliance on migratory pollination services though, as that side of the beekeeping industry has been attributed largely to the spread of diseases and pests that are affecting the bee species. Also, if farmers start keeping their own bees perhaps they will realise the detrimental effect that pesticides are having on the pollination source – ie bees - of 75% of their food crops.
Through the field-testing and refinement, I have been able to work with a group of small-scale urban farmers from Soweto, Orange Farm and Johannesburg, adding beehives to their farms and training them to keep them. With the moulds and skills they will become a point of access for others in their community, creating a localised beekeeping industry.
What else have you been up to since winning the PPC Imaginarium Awards Industrial Design Runner-up award?
For the past two years I have been completing my master’s degree in Industrial Design at the University of Johannesburg. I have travelled to three international design conferences during that time to present on my research (the Beegin ABT system) and I have collaborated with my supervisor (and HOD Angus Donald Campbell) on research papers and a book chapter. When I have free time, there are several other projects I am working on, including a business (Power Sweep), where I have partnered with an architect.
Where to next for the Beegin beehives and Ivan Brown?
The next step for Beegin is to start selling the technology to the people that stand to benefit from it. Starting in January 2018, I will be selling the production tools and beehives.
I hope to partner with organisations, training institutions and initiatives that are already working in the beekeeping or agricultural development fields, and who could incorporate the Beegin technology system into their frameworks. Although we have done intensive research, development and field-testing, it was on a small-scale.
This next phase will serve as an extensive, wider field test of the finalised version of the technology. Then, after four or five years, we will be able to measure the impact and assess the technology again from a broader point of view and hopefully further improve the system.
Should anyone like to find out more about the Beegin beehives, how can they get in touch with you?