Also, the country's black people, denied ownership of land for decades under the former political system of apartheid, had few opportunities to raise domesticated bees without secure access to land on which to keep hives.
Now, nearly a decade after the program was introduced in South Africa, 35 Beekeeping for Poverty Relief projects are operating across the country. Many more are expected as poor communities start seeing the benefits of the existing projects.
Ron Botha, president of the KwaZulu Natal Bee Farmers Association, said the established industry produces about 3,000 tons of honey a year, which falls far short of South Africa's domestic demand. Large amounts of honey have to be imported, but because of South Africa's bad currency exchange rate at the moment, this is so expensive that there is a big shortage in the market.
"I therefore see tremendous possibilities for beekeeping as a poverty-relief program. There is an enormous gap in the market which these new producers can fill," he said.
In some instances, formerly destitute participants in the program have used profits from the beekeeping projects to acquire vehicles for transporting the bees and products.
"One hive can produce honey worth more than a thousand rand (a hundred dollars) a year. For people who before had nothing, this is good money. So whole families work hard to get as many hives going as they can," said Lundall-Magnuson.
Some communities are deriving additional income by producing beeswax candles and other products.
The efforts to find out whether a beverage produced from honey could become commercially viable are being done by scientists in the biotechnology department of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, a small city on South Africa's eastern seaboard.
Garth Cambray, a researcher who heads the project, said the beverage, a type of mead, is made from honey, pollen, and the indigenous imoela herb (Trichodiadema intonsum). The recipe comes from indigenous people in South Africa who have been using it for ages.
An initial beekeeping project and production plant have been established, and if the beveragecalled by its traditional name, iQhilikaproves popular in the market, the demand for honey to produce the drink could soar.
"We have had professional wine tasters taste the product, and they were impressed," said Cambray. "We have also had people taste it who have long been making their own home brews from traditional recipes, and they were delighted with the quality of ours."
He said iQhilika cannot be sold yet from shop shelves, as the business is still awaiting a government license that is required under South Africa's liquor laws. But it is already being offered through the Internet.
Lundall-Magnuson said the relative simplicity of beekeeping makes it appealing as a poverty-relief program. Prospective beekeepers need to learn only fundamental skills such as safe handling of bees while collecting honey or when swarms are being transferred to the hives.
It is also relatively cheap for beginners to get started. Applicants selected for the Beekeeping for Poverty Relief program are given their first hives free of charge, and the land on which to house the hives is usually allocated by tribal authorities or municipalities.
She says the Agricultural Research Council has projected that new beekeeping businesses could provide income opportunities for some 6,500 formerly unemployed people within the next five years.
Beekeeping is not as dangerous as it is widely believed to be, said Lundall-Magnuson, adding that the African bee's fierce reputation comes from comparisons with its more docile European counterpart.
"We certainly do not perceive it to be a 'killer bee,'" she said. "We teach people what protective clothing to wear, the technique of handling bees, and to do it in a calm and friendly manner. And soon we find their fear actually switching to love of the bees."
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