By Victoria McCraven | 20 May 2020
Growing concern over the disappearance of bees and, as a result, biodiversity has led to a revival of beekeeping over the past few years. To support such initiatives the British Museum announced the creation of the British Museum Bee Club in 2014. Utilising the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre’s green roof, staff from the British Museum, trained by London’s Urban Bee Project Staff, become beekeepers. In this interview, Victoria McCraven speaks with Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe about his EMKP project Histories of Honey: Material Practices of Beekeeping in the Cherangani Hills, Kenya.
Victoria McCraven: Samuel, could you start by telling us a little bit about your project?
Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe: Yes, so at its most basic this project is looking at the histories of beekeeping within the Embobut Forest of western Kenya. I aim to explore how and why practices of apiculture are changing and how these practices are entangled with broader environments. As such, I am not just looking at beekeeping and the making of hives as an isolated craft, but rather at how these practices are situated within particular landscapes and ecologies. Initially the project was supposed to be set against a broader backdrop of archival work; however, there were a number of logistical issues that stifled this process and I later realized that it would be more pertinent to research the activities of beekeeping in the Embobut Forest, which itself is disappearing due to deforestation.
I came to work on this topic because my DPhil was set in the same area. Through that research, I came to look at the material histories of the Embobut landscape in order to contextualise conservation debates surrounding the politics of deforestation and community rights to land. When the EMKP programme was launched, I realised that I could explore these topics in greater detail through the avenue of beekeeping and the material histories of the forests themselves.
Victoria McCraven: How did your research with EMKP differ from your prior DPhil research?
Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe: I would say that the research I carried out through the EMKP programme was an extension of my original DPhil project. For my DPhil I was mapping historic settlements, forest glades, and community forested areas in order to explore how people were historically dwelling in the forest. As a part of the EMKP, I wanted to gain a more qualitative understanding of the knowledge and relationship people had with the forest ecology by exploring where and how people were keeping bees. The collection of geospatial data is an important part of this process, as it was throughout my DPhil. I have also been looking at oral histories, and for this I was again drawing on some of the things I had already learned for my DPhil. What has differed most between my DPhil and my current EMKP project is the use of visual documentation as a research tool for systematically observing certain skills, tools, and pieces of knowledge that you may otherwise miss in a conventional sit down interview.
Victoria McCraven: Did some of the beekeeping techniques change with different age groups or generations?
Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe: Yes, definitely, and this is something that particularly interests me. I think most anthropologists and archaeologists are aware of the possible missteps that can occur when trying to document and archive traditional skills and knowledge. For example, it can be highly problematic to record a craft as ‘traditional’ and then just stick it in a museum as if it represents a static practice ruptured from any kind of temporal change or integration into the contemporary world. This approach harks back to early twentieth century practices when researchers aimed to document aspects of “non-Western cultures” in order to salvage, preserve, and lock them away as exotic curiosities. I am interested in how people have always been integrated into the contemporary world, developing new practices through processes of innovation, and creating new ideas or things, even if they simultaneously draw upon “traditional” knowledge and crafts. With regard to beehives in Kenya, you are dealing a traditional object category which is anything but static as people are always thinking of new ways to continue practices of apiculture. For instance, younger people have started to use nails instead of traditional forms of vine to tie a beehive to a tree. People have also started using polythene and corrugated iron-like sheets to waterproof the top of their beehive, whereas in the past elders used bark from specific trees. In this sense, the knowledge associated with creating a beehive might not have changed, but the materials that constitute that beehive have.
Victoria McCraven: Did you see a clear change in techniques with each generation?
Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe: I’d say it’s a mixture. You’ll have some people, who need to build a hive more quickly, that decide to use inorganic materials for thatching because they are more readily available, instead of traditional bark or grass. Others will build a hive the exact way their elders taught them to. A lot of individuals have just stopped building beehives altogether and buy them from specialist craftsmen. So, it’s not a pure generational divide. One of the men we worked with, called Kipchai, is really proud of his craft, and saw it as his job to make beehives in the most traditional manner he could. He actually showed another elder some techniques that he wasn’t aware of because he had learned shortcuts. They used the word “shortcuts” a lot. Modern materials are shortcuts. But Kipchai would always say that “you never shortcut your beehive.”
Charring the beehive
Victoria McCraven: Collecting oral histories is an important part of your research with EMKP, can you explain how you began the interview process and some of your most interesting findings?
Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe: The first big bit of fieldwork I undertook lasted about six or seven weeks. We were working with three individuals who are from the Embobut Forest area. This was actually designed by my collaborators, Timothy Kipkeu Kiprutto and Joseph Kimutai. It was their idea to work with three people on one beehive. The first man was Kipchai, who is in his mid-fifties. The second man, Ruto, is about 24 years old and is very passionate about making beehives – but often constructs them with different materials. The third man, Jacob, who is in his early sixties, has never made his own beehives, preferring to buy them from specialist craftsmen. I interviewed these three people separately in order to collect their own knowledge of apiculture and wider forest ecologies. But one of the most illuminating things to emerge out of the fieldwork was to observe them making a beehive together because Kipchai was teaching certain traditional techniques while Ruto would ask him “why are you doing this, why don’t you do this instead?”. Through these small conversations, certain issues or techniques were illuminated that otherwise would not have been uncovered by collecting only oral histories in a one to one interview. The main problem is that I don’t speak Marakwet, so I probably missed a lot of details. I had to always talk to my collaborators about what was going on, whilst having to also deal with the practicalities of filming.
Victoria McCraven: In your research you observe that conservation policies are affecting beekeeping in the Cherangani Hills, could you speak more about that?
Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe: People technically aren’t allowed to live in the forest anymore, and the Kenya Forest Service’s 2016 Forest Act states that you’re not allowed to put up beehives in forest reserves. To me that doesn’t make sense, because beehives are good for biodiversity, pollination, and for wider forest health etc. In any case, as a result of these conservation boundaries, people who were traditionally situated within the forest environment are no longer allowed to live there and if caught building beehives, could technically be fined or arrested.
One thing I realised since starting the project is that there are probably more beehives now than there were in the past. This is due mainly to population growth in the region. That said, in the past everyone was making and keeping beehives, whereas today only a small percentage of the overall population do. This means that, proportionally, the practice of beekeeping and the social institutions associated with it are actually declining. In other words, at face value it may look like beekeeping is still really prevalent in Embobut, but when you talk to most individuals, relatively few people keep bees, whereas if you asked the question 40 or 50 years ago, everyone would have been saying: ‘beekeeping and honey production are the most important thing to our local economies’.
Victoria McCraven: Samuel, thank you so much for talking to us about your project. Lastly, I wanted to ask what are you doing now and what are your plans for further research?
Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe: In terms of my current position, I am working at UCL looking at food production in East Africa, specifically looking at histories of small-holder innovation and resilience within Marakwet County, Cherangani Hills. Beekeeping is an important aspect of this work, and may act as a springboard into broader conversations surrounding how human groups are categorized economically. For example, the categories of hunter gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers as a very traditional way of grouping how people live and how this structures societies. Beekeeping is a practice which cuts across these economic groups because you have pastoralists, hunter gatherers, and farmers who all keep bees. What theoretical, analytical tools, or frameworks can you find if collapse these categories and instead view them all as beekeepers in different capacities? There’s some interesting stories to look at there. The EMKP project itself ends in September, so I haven’t got long left, but hopefully I can continue working on it.
Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe is currently a Research Fellow at the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity working on a GCRF funded project entitled ‘Prosperity and Innovation in the Past and Future of Agriculture in Eastern Africa’.
Victoria McCraven is an MA Candidate in the History of Art at SOAS, University of London on a Fulbright Award. She is currently writing her dissertation on Transatlantic Amnesia: Examining Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus as an act of Decoloniality.