Nico Langenhoven, 81, was recently awarded a lifetime honorary membership of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association. We caught up with him at his home in Paarl to find out more about his lifelong association with bees.
Not many people can claim to have started beekeeping at the age of five. As the youngest of four brothers, when the local farm school in Caledon was closed down, his siblings all went off to boarding school and he was the only extra pair of hands left behind at home. Oom Nico explains that is why at the age of five he first started helping his father with bees.
A child of the Overberg – Oom Nico was born in Swellendam and lived on and off in Caledon and the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley near Hermanus. Back in the day, beekeepers used whatever was easily to hand back, he recalls, and they used old paraffin crates as makeshift hives. These sturdy crates – built to ship paraffin for use in lamps, stoves and incubation chambers (for hatching eggs) – were placed on top of each other at right angles. By making a hole between the two, creating an entrance and inserting a queen excluder, they could double as hives and supers.
Although in high school, he didn’t have much to do with bees, by the time he started his first job the bug had bitten again and he made his first Langstroth hive. When he married his wife, Marie, in 1965 he had three hives and was a signed up member of the WCBA – gradually growing his number of hives to 150 in all.
But it was only at the age of 55 that Oom Nico’s commercial beekeeping operation truly came into being. This was when, after taking an early retirement retrenchment package, he decided to turn his hobby into a commercial enterprise. For the next 12 years, he built up this business, selling it as a going concern in 2008 – with almost 1000 hives to his name!
That was not the end of his beekeeping, though. “I left the bees, but they didn’t leave me behind,” he says.
Oom Nico counts among his achievements the founding of the South African Bee Industry Organisation (SABIO) which was the successor to the earlier South African Federation of Bee-Farmer’s Associations. He was the last chair of the outgoing organisation in 2002. He was also instrumental in initiating talks with the Department of Agriculture at Elsenburg in the Western Cape to get the Bee Industry Strategy (BIS) off the ground. One of his proudest moments was being named the Bee Farmer of the Year at the SABIO AGM in Oudtshoorn in 2016.
Since “retiring” from commercial beekeeping, he has continued his research and written extensively on topics ranging from bee nutrition (something that is close to his heart) to rearing queens, something he believes somebody in the Western Cape should tackle. His interest in bee behaviour is wide-ranging – from how far they can forage successfully to potential territorial behaviours.
He has worked as a consultant to the blueberry industry in South Africa and Namibia and travelled to Australia on a fact-finding mission. Most recently, he has been asked to be an expert witness to give evidence in court on bee behaviour. Among the major changes he has seen in the industry include the advent of large-scale canola planting which has made it possible for beekeepers to build up their numbers for pollination through ‘splits’ and also the rapid growth in urban beekeeping.
Nico Langenhoven’s Three Takeaways for Commercial Beekeepers
After a lifetime of beekeeping, Oom Nico says there is a reason why not many people stay the course when it comes to commercial beekeeping. Firstly, bees sting and, secondly, it’s hard work! For those who are keen, he does have some sage advice.
1. Do Your Sums
Oom Nico says too many commercial beekeepers fail to keep a proper account of what their business is costing them and consequently struggle to remain in business. By way of demonstration, he reaches for his log books which indicate how many kilometres he has driven over the years. He advises that beekeepers create a spreadsheet reflecting the variables – such as fuel costs, distance and number of hives to be transported – to arrive at a realistic price to charge for pollination. Similarly, he has a formula to indicate how much relative effort in his business went into honey versus pollination at different times of the year. By his reckoning, this amounted to 50% honey and 50% pollination from March to June, 75% pollination and 25% honey from July to October and 25% pollination and 75% honey from November to February.
2. Don’t Believe Everything You Read on the Internet
“It’s not just a different ballgame, it’s a different ball,” says Oom Nico, likening it to the difference between soccer and rugby, when it comes to working with the Cape honeybee. He explains that many beekeeping countries in the world (such as the USA and Australia) did not have indigenous honeybees and so the vast majority are imported Italian bees. Much of what is published on the internet is about these beekeeping operations but our indigenous African bees (namely Apis mellifera capensis and Apis mellifera scutellata) have different biology and habits. Similarly, local conditions differ when it comes to farming practices and climate.
3. Feed Your Bees
With much talk of the lack of bee forage in the Western Cape, Oom Nico says the biggest problem is that there is too little forage for the number of honeybees there are. For this reason, it has become essential to feed your bees. One of the reasons why bee numbers dwindle during the blueberry pollination season, he explains, is because the blueberries deliver a lot of nectar but very little pollen. As a consequence, the honey supers are full but the brood weakens. One way to counter this is to provide more pollen for the bees before and during pollination. The same is true for plums and to a lesser extent apples. Nico makes these pollen patties himself and demonstrates how he places them on top of the frames above the brood between foil and wax paper so that the bees have easy access while keeping the hive beetles at bay. He says bees need the equivalent of a good Sunday lunch – a balanced meal with a wide variety of food on the plate. Don’t we all!