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Banking on bees to rescue Kenya’s water towers

All that buzz   

Bees are at the centre of a plan to rescue Kenya’s water towers.

Legend has it that the first honey ever exported out of Kenya came from Samburu County.

It is said this maiden package was destined for the royal residence — the Buckingham Palace in the United Kingdom – apparently a gift from Kenya to the Queen of England.

Today, the government hopes that this legend retold at a community sitting in Maralal, Samburu County, last month, will leave a mark in the minds of community members, and spur them into action to help the desperate bid by the Kenya Water Towers Agency (KWTA) to salvage the Lerroghi Dryland Water Tower—a critical water catchment and biodiversity hotspot.


The government wants the community to shift their efforts from felling trees and encroaching on forests, to using the woodlands in ventures that will translate to conservation.

Bees are at the centre of this plan to rescue the Ewaso Nyiro catchment area, with the local community urged to take up the more nature-friendly bee-keeping in place of practices such as overstocking of livestock, harvesting forest products for traditional medicine, and logging and burning of charcoal, that have put excessive pressure on the Kirisia Forest and mountain ranges.

Already, according to Adamson Lanyasunya, the MCA for Loosuk Ward and county chair for agriculture and livestock, up to 30 per cent of the Kirisia Forest has been lost to encroachers who are advancing farther into the forest, which covers more than 92,000 hectares.

“There is real worry about the shrinking forest, as people continue to hive off portions for settlement.


“This compounds an already bad situation of livestock which degrade the forest by overgrazing,” he said, adding that further north, the Ndoto Mountains and Matthews Ranges and the rivers that flow from them are also under threat.

“The streams that come from the mountains to drain into Ngare Narok River dry up quickly now.

“If people continue wanton destruction of the forests, then we should expect retribution from nature,” he added.

Last November, Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko attributed water shortage to deforestation, encroachment, and degradation of water catchment areas and riparian land.

He extended a ban on logging in all public and community forests, initially imposed in February, for another year to facilitate reforms and restore and rehabilitate critical water catchment and natural forest areas currently estimated at 123,553 acres. Charcoal burning was also banned for the same reason.

The Ministry of Environment estimates that 76,603 acres of forest have been depleted, and it plans to have this area replanted with indigenous tree species. The ministry says it needs Sh18 billion to handle challenges of deforestation in the next five years.


“The tree species in this particular water catchment area are famed for their medicinal value, probably of invaluable measure, and we should try as much as possible as country to protect them from being burnt for charcoal,” says KWTA board chairman Isaac Kalua.

“Because of this, the forest has got some of the best pollen in the country, which makes very good honey … so why not tap into that?” he poses

According to his counterpart KWTA Acting Director General, Julius Tanui, 24 per cent of all indigenous trees in the country come from this particular water tower.

According to assessments by the agency, the total net value of the water tower is Sh54 billion.

But John Lelesit the chairperson of one of the bee-keeping groups recruited by the government, admits that the government is yet to get through to a majority of the residents in its community livelihood improvement project, as the charcoal burning inside the forest secretly goes on.

“People were burning charcoal because they lacked an alternative, yet they need to survive. Today we’re no longer seeing the many fires that had become routine in Kirisia Forest. They have reduced because people are now wary of destruction of the bee habitats in the forest,” adds the elderly Mr Lelesit.

Slowly, residents who own apiaries are now becoming guardians of the forests, against a remnant of charcoal burners.

Mr Lelesit says that more education and public awareness is required to ensure that all the residents in the county living near the forests get on board.

KWTA says that it will take more than just evictions to reverse the damage and conserve the tower.

The agency supported training on modern bee-keeping techniques for locals living in the water tower and provided equipment to upscale the capacity of the honey refining unit.

In Ng’are, on the fringes of Kirisia Forest, a little after 10am, the sun is still a muted flaxen-yellow, its shafts of light piercing through patches of cloud and tree branches onto the row of hives underneath, in Lilian Letiwa’s compound.

“Here bees are aplenty. Inside the forest you find lots of balls of nests the bees have constructed on trees, other times you find them in shrubs.

“Last week because the flowers on the grass in my compound were flowering there were so many bees, that they established a nest in my cupboard,” explains Ms Letiwa amidst the furious buzzing of the bees that have escaped the crowding in the 10 hives on the compound to forage on the flowers atop long blades of Boma Rhodes grass bushes nearby.

In total, Ms Letiwa’s 23-member group has 40 Langstroth hives received from the KWTA at a subsidised price of Sh1,000 — an amount that is also payable in honey.

Previously the people of Samburu used locally-made grass basket hives or log hives or simply went into the forest and harvested there.


Now with the beekeeping and honey processing initiative, the government hopes to mitigate the potential impacts of deforestation and biodiversity degradation in the region.

Groups like Ms Letiwa’s living near the forests have received more 15,400 modern beehives over the last three years, from the county and national government.

Now the government is encouraging them to join a cooperative – the Samburu Beekeepers Cooperative Society – as it seeks to organise the trade. A section of farmers supplied the refinery with more than 1,000 killogrammes of honey for processing last season.

“The plan is to surmount the challenges by providing alternative livelihood solutions to enable sustainable restoration and conservation of the water tower,” says KWTA Acting Director General Julius Tanui, noting that the initiative intends to change the harmful customary and relatively new practices that have caused damage in the last decade.

“If we don’t give these people alternatives they’ll certainly encroach on natural resources. We hope that the water tower will be conserved and we are encouraging farmers to consider even more nature-friendly alternatives like collecting and packaging seeds of the rare indigenous tree species from the forest for sale in partnership with the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI),” added Mr Kalua, the board chairman of the water tower agency.

He called on the county government to empower residents to start making the hives, to keep the jobs within the community.

At the community meeting with the KWTA, where the Buckingham Palace story was recited, Mr Kalua launched modern honey refinery equipment for the honey collection centre in Maralal town, to upscale the capacity of the processing unit. The agency also supported training on modern beekeeping techniques.

The county government estimates that the beekeepers could earn up to Sh170 million from honey annually, at current capacity.


“The next phase will be to help the community market their honey and once they start making good money, most of them will be convinced to join the venture,” says KWTA’s boss Mr Tanui, “And when the community sees value, then our message will be home and more will want to participate in deterring destruction of the forest.”

There are other benefits too, according to Ms Letiwa. Crop farming has also profited from the beekeeping venture, as the bees help in pollinating crops – especially maize which is a recent staple on the farms.

“Bee-keeping is something we have done since time immemorial. We’ve used it as medicine and as food … but we did not know that it could add value to our lives economically and help protect the environment,” says Willim Lelechep the chairman of the Samburu Beekeepers Cooperative Society.

Mr Lelechep explains that they have also come to understand how important climate is to their harvest, and how conserving the forest is linked to all this.

“When the rains are good, we harvest three times a year. But with poor rains, we can only harvest twice or even once a year,”he says. “We are faced with the challenge of rain which doesn’t come with the regularity it did previously. “On years like those the bees disappear. That is bad for business.” He adds that when the rains are good, the cooperative is able to process up to three or four tonnes of honey per season, but only one tonne in dry seasons.



Want to save bees from extinction? Vaccinate them

Scientists in Finland have developed a vaccine to protect bees against disease, raising hopes for tackling the drastic decline in insect numbers which could cause a global food crisis.

Bees are vital for growing the world's food as they help fertilise three out of four crops around the globe, by transferring pollen from male to female flowers. But in recent years bee populations around the world have been dying off from "colony collapse disorder", a mysterious scourge blamed on mites, pesticides, virus, fungi, or a combination of these factors.

UN-led research in 2016 found that more than 40 per cent of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, are facing extinction. The study also found that 16.5 per cent of vertebrate pollinators, such as birds and bats, are under threat. Scientists warn that the die-off will result in higher food prices and the risk of shortages.

The vaccine works by giving bees resistance to fight off severe microbial diseases that can be fatal for pollinator communities. Vaccinating insects was previously thought to be impossible because the creatures lack antibodies, one of the key mechanisms humans and other animals use to fight disease.


But a breakthrough came in 2014 when lead researcher Dalial Freitak, a specialist in insects and immunology, noticed that moths who are fed certain bacteria can in fact pass on immunity to their offspring.

Freitak met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honey bees and a protein called vitellogenin, and she thought that it must be the protein that takes the signal from one generation of bees to another.

The pair collaborated to create a vaccine against American foulbrood, the most globally widespread and destructive bee bacterial disease. The treatment is administered to the queen bee via a sugar lump, similar to the way many children are given polio vaccines. The queen then passes the immunity to her offspring, spreading it through the bee community.

"If we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit," said Freitak. "Even a two-to-three per cent increase in the bee population would be humongous.”


Diseases are believed to be just one of a number of reasons for the loss of pollinators, alongside pesticides and intensive farming, which reduces the diversity of insects' nutrition. But the team believes that protecting bee populations against disease will make them stronger, and therefore better able to withstand the other threats. The European Union and Canada have voted to introduce bans on insecticides based on neonicotinoids after studies showed the chemicals harmed the ability of bees to reproduce.

UN-backed research in 2016 estimated that up to $577 billion worth of food grown every year relies directly on pollinators. The study showed that the volume of food that depends on pollinators has risen by 300 per cent in the last half century.

As pollinator numbers have declined, some farmers have turned to either renting bees or pollinating by hand –as with fruit trees in some parts of China – in order to replace the processes that nature previously provided free of charge.

Further research on vaccinating bees will begin this year, with the vaccine expected to reach market in about five years. (AFP)