Beekeeping has been practiced in Ethiopia for over 5,000 years, with evidence dating its presence in Ethiopia as far back as 3,500 to 3,000 BC. Folklore rumors that the Queen of Sheba brought honey back to the country after her famous visit with King Solomon in Jerusalem, a visit that is of significant historic importance in Ethiopia’s national mythology. Other Ethiopian rulers are also famously linked to beekeeping, including the great King Lalibela from the 13th century, whose monolithic rock-hewn churches remain one of the country’s most important spiritual destinations and popular tourist attractions. According to legend, the king was named “Lalibela” – or “recognized as a ruler by the bees” in the language of the time – by his mother when she saw a swarm of bees surround him as a newborn. The town of Lalibela is still known for the sweet taste of its honey.
As far back as the third century AD, when the Aksumite King Ezana made it famous, honey has been used by Ethiopia’s nobility and social elite in the preparation of traditional honey mead and the production of candles for high profile events and religious ceremonies. These remain the two most common domestic outputs from Ethiopian beekeeping. Today, more than 70% of domestic honey consumption goes into making the local honey mead, called tej, the “national drink” of Ethiopia. Local tej makers often use the beeswax byproduct of their brewing to make the traditional candles, called twaf, used in religious ceremonies of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
In addition to its uses as a sweetener, honey itself is still commonly used, together with garlic, as a traditional remedy for the common cold.
Traditional beekeeping is practiced in nearly all regions of Ethiopia, by more than one million smallholder farmers. Though backyard beekeeping is practiced in the majority of the country, forest beekeeping is common in the rainforest-covered hills of the south and south west regions.
Types of Honey
Traditional small-scale beekeeping still accounts for more than 90% of the current production of honey and almost all of the beeswax. Adoption of modern hives, which produce three times more than the traditional hives is nascent but growing across the country.
Currently, only 2-3% of Ethiopia’s honey and 10% of its beeswax make their way to international markets. Both the export and domestic markets for these products are untapped and show remarkable potential.