At the balcony of an eatery along Nairobi’s Kimathi Street, a woman swats away a persistent bee that is buzzing near her cup of coffee.
She curses under her breath, promising to post a complaint on social media to call out the eatery’s management for failing to keep away bees which won’t let her enjoy her coffee and cookies in peace.
A few hours later, Dr Wanja Kinuthia, an entomologist, asks rhetorical questions in an interview at her office at the National Museums of Kenya: “What if I told you that your existence, such a big animal, is dependent on the bee, such a small insect? What if I told you that for every one of every three bites of the food you eat and every cup of coffee you sip, you should thank the bee?”
Two different reactions to the same insect, but let’s focus on the latter.
Long before the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other researchers raised the alarm on the decline of the bees, Dr Kinuthia had already dedicated her career to saving the insects.
“I will show you in a bit why the bee is threatening our food security, livelihoods and the ecosystem at large,” the entomologist with a fascinating obsession for bees says.
The museum has a collection of books co-authored by Dr Kinuthia and other experts, documenting how Kenyans are driving bees into extinction. She echoes what major studies, notably UNEP’s 2016 report, have documented, that uncontrolled development, pollution and climate change are driving the bee out of its space on planet earth.
According to UNEP, there are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world, and nearly 17 per cent of these face imminent extinction, and they are taking food security, livelihoods and ecological balance with them to non-existence. Kenya holds about 1,000 species of bees and in any given landscape there could be more than 100 types of bees.
It is hard to imagine the link between bees and the role they play in our existence, until pollination is mentioned. Pollination is to a plant what sex and reproduction is to mankind. Through pollination, crops “mate” to produce the food we eat. It happens so discreetly, that even the bee which facilitates this process, is unaware of it.
The bee makes a stop at flowers in crops to collect water and nectar at the base of the petals for food, or to sleep. While at it, its hairy body rubs against the male part of the flower, the anther, which contains gummy pollen that sticks on the bee. As it moves to another plant, the bee accidentally rubs on the female part of the plant’s flower, the stigma, in which resides the pistil that receives the pollen.
This initiates the process of fertilisation that will allow the plant to bring forth seeds, fruits or another harvest. Seventy-five per cent of the crops that produce food around the world, depend on this process. So if there are no bees, there will be no pollination and no food. In Kenya, popular foods such as nuts, potatoes, bananas, carrots, onions, beans, cassava, yams, passion fruit and our world renowned coffee, depend on bees to reproduce and produce the food we eat.
Sadly, as life begins for some crops, the death of the bee begins. How? The answer lies in too much pesticide used on crops. This contaminates the nectar, which the bees eat, then they die. As agriculture intensifies, small-scale farmers use many strategies including overuse of chemicals to maximise their yields. 2011 data from the Ministry of Environment showed that pesticide imports increased by 38 per cent from 2003 to 2008.
The Pests Control Products Board has registered 1, 096 pesticides to be used on crops in Kenya and 31 pesticides have been banned since 1986 for their harmful effects to the ecosystem. In Europe, three pesticides were banned in 2013 after scientists proved that when bees are exposed to even low doses of the chemicals, they get confused making it harder for them to find good sources of nutrition or safely return home to their hives.
Seeing as small-scale farmers make up 70 per cent of farmers in Kenya (according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation), the welfare of bees is highly dependent on them. As the population grows at an average rate of 4.3 per cent per year, the demand for food increases, leading to more land cleared for agriculture, which then robs bees of suitable habitats and food (nectar), which in turn leads to less yields and less food produced for the growing population.
This vicious cycle does not only affect food security, it affects livelihoods as well. Eighty-seven per cent of money earned globally, is made from food crops that depend on animal pollination. According to 2009 FAO estimates, this comes to 15 billion Euros (Sh1.7 trillion) annually.
“Farmers need to work with bees, because in the real sense, they are co-workers,” Dr Kinuthia continues.
She echoes what Dino Martin, an entomologist wrote in his book Our Friends the Pollinators: A Handbook of Pollinator Diversity and Conservation in East Africa, that in some areas in Kenya 99 per cent of pollination is reliant on wild bees.
QUALITY OF FOOD
“Farmers need to study the habits of the insects that visit their farms and when they visit so that they do not spray the crops and poison their nectar; they should also plant hedges around the farm to act as ‘bee hotels’ where they can breed and live,” Dr Martin wrote.
Thus, farmers have to maintain their farms in ways that make them attractive to bees. Practices such as “slash and burn” and logging for firewood and timber around the farm hurt bees.
Dr Kinuthia explains: Trees and other plants provide breeding places, homes and nectar for bees to live on. When they are cut, it doesn’t just leave the bees homeless, it also leaves them without food, so they starve to death.”
In a previous interview, Dr Muo Kasina, an economic entomologist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) said that simple practices like laying logs on farms helps carpenter bees drill homes for other bees to live in.
Further, Dr Kasina’s research has linked the quality and quantity of food to pollination.
In a study carried out between 2009 and 2010 and published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, Dr Kasina found that 40 per cent of crop production in Kakamega, estimated to cost Sh270 million, was dependent on animal pollination.
In a previous study, Dr Kasina looked at the difference in crop yields before and after farmers implemented interventions to protect bees.
The findings showed that when farmers took care of bees, they earned 50 per cent more profits than before. Crops yielded fatter green grams, maize had more grains on the cob and crops like sunflower weighed double after introducing interventions to protect bees.
In Baringo and Kerio Valley, measures to safeguard bees led to a fivefold increase in the yields of water melons.
The 2014 Economic Survey revealed that yields of potatoes had declined noting that the crop had not reached its potential despite favourable weather patterns. This decline can be attributed to deficiency in pollination, taking us back to the importance of bees.
To illustrate further, 83 farmers under the tutelage of Eric Muthama, the director of Farmers Consult, conducted a trial to show the importance of pollination by bees.
The farmers denied bees access to vegetables in their farms, and the result was that after three months, the crops produced no yields.
“Sections of the crop were covered with nets to prevent bees from coming into contact with the plants to pollinate them. From the experiment, we learnt that bee pollination is a must for fruit and seed development in watermelons, courgettes and pumpkins,” Mr Muthama explains.
Loise Mbithe, one of the small-scale farmers who participated in the exercise told HealthyNation that her income increased nearly 50 per cent when she learnt to embrace farming practices that encourage bees to come to her farm.
“My mango tree used to yield 50 fruits which I would sell for Sh8, but once I learnt how to attract and keep bees in my farm, it now produces an average of 90 fruits which are bigger and better looking which means I can sell them for at least Sh10 a piece,” she said.
The solutions were simple. She learnt to use pesticides sparingly and then planted a hedge around the farm to provide food for the pollinators. At the larval stage bees particularly depend on plant leaves for food.
As she ends my tour into the world of bees and how it is intertwined with our existence, Dr Kinuthia quips that the reason Nyayo Tea Zones never flourished might be because there was only one type of tree.
75 per cent of food crops in the world depend on bees for pollination and subsequently for production of the food that sustains us.
There are more than 20, 000 species of bees in the world and 17 per cent of them are facing extinction.
Kenya holds 1, 000 bees and in any given geographical location, there are more than 100 types of bees.
Bees are responsible for the pollination of plants that yield potatoes, beans, water melons and carrots.
The 2014 Economic Survey showed a decline in potato yields despite favourable weather. This was linked to lack of pollination.
Pollinators under threat
Small-scale farmers have been identified as a potential threat to bees because their farming methods are not bee-friendly. Clearing land for agriculture and use of too much pesticide and other chemicals to maximise yields is harmful to bees. Moreover, this turns out to be counterproductive because when bees die as a result of these practices, there are no pollinators, thus harvests decline. Farmers hold the key to maintaining the number of bees through bee-friendly farming methods.
The future may look bleak for bees around the world, but Kenya is setting the trend as a leader in beekeeping in the region. At the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), a dedicated lab – the African Reference Lab for Bee Health – leads research on the wellbeing of bees, pollination and beekeeping for rural development.
It is in this lab where it was discovered that the African bee is not affected by the Varroan mite, which is considered the most detrimental threat to bees all over the world. The mite sucks the blood of the bee at the larvae stage, infecting it with viral diseases such as the deformed wing virus. The mite which is also responsible for colony collapse disorder, was discovered in Kenya in 2009. Icipe’s head of environmental health Dr Michael Lattorf, told HealthyNation that apart from the mite, bees are vulnerable to other diseases, but the situation in Kenya is not as bad as in other parts of the world.
“We do not know how long this stability will last, whether the mite will become dangerous or if the African bee will remain resilient.”
That is why Icipe continues to carry out research on bees. At the lab, quality assurance tests are carried out on honey and occasionally, selective insemination of the queen bee happens.
Apart from Icipe, the establishment of the National Beekeeping Institute at the Ministry of Agriculture is an indicator of the government waking up to the importance of bees for food security.
Dr Grace Asiko, the deputy director of the institute says that for a while, a lot of focus was put on large animals such as cattle.
“We have observed vegetables here at the institute, and we have been able to demonstrate up to more than 80 per cent improvement when crops such as strawberries, tomatoes and chillies are pollinated by bees,” she said.
The institute whose core mandate includes encouraging beekeeping for honey, tests honey for impurities, presence of antibiotics, heavy metals and water content. It was singled out by the European Union funded InterAfrican Bureau for Animal Resources as a place where farmers from the region are trained based on the specific situations in their countries. Occasionally, the centre carries out artificial insemination just like Icipe but both Dr Lattorff and Dr Asiko do not champion this because they want to maintain the natural characteristic of the bee which makes it adaptable to this environment.