Professor Mary Gikungu, a conservation biologist based at the centre for bee biology and pollination ecology, recently gave a lecture at Muthaiga Club on bee pollination for Biodiversity Conservation and Economic Development. It was part of the monthly lecture series of the Kenya Museum Society.
The lecture gave critical information demonstrating the knowledge gap between the science of pollination and the users of the information, especially farmers who need it the most.
Eighty-seven percent of flowering plants in the world are pollinated by insects, majority of which is done by the killer bee. This is the honey-making type of bee that is widely known by the general public.
There are more than three thousand species of these bees in Africa, although empirical data is not readily available. They are critical for food crop production as pollination does not only affect the quantity of food produced, but it also affects the quality. Good quality seeds are produced by pollinated crops.
Part of the food insecurity problems that are facing Kenya and other African countries are caused by the lack of attention to pollinators. The quality of food from crops that are not pollinated is much lower in nutrition value than that of pollinated crops. As such bee keeping should be considered along other types of farming whose productivity is dependent on or requires pollination. Pollinated crops also produce viable quality seeds for replanting.
In previous years farmers would assume the role of pollinators as they were readily available in the environment. The diversity and numbers of bees, which are very important, had been greatly reduced as many are killed and destroyed in forest fires used to clear land for planting. Others are killed by floods and the greatest number has been affected by the destruction of their habitats. The natural habitat for bees include densely forested areas, tropical gardens and meadows. All these have been greatly reduced or adversely affected by human activity.
Kenya is also affected by inadequate research for example to identify the most effective pollinator to make the food pollination process more effective. Arabic coffee, endemic to Yemen and Ethiopia, but widely grown on Kenyan coffee farms has been known to have a much better flavour when it is pollinated.
Large scale farmers, however often use pesticides that are not bee-friendly and this many increase the productivity of their coffee but not the quality.
Horticultural farming also needs bees. Tomatoes are, for example pollinated by the carpenter and bumble bees. Farmers are often advised to shake plants for the exchange of pollen, but the natural and hence most efficient pollinator is the bee.
The most juicy and succulent melons are also those that have been pollinated. It is therefore advisable for farmers of the above crops to keep a beehive on their farms. Medicinal plants would also lose their potency in the absence of pollination.
Bees may therefore be the answer to the world’s Sustainable Development Goal number two, which aims not only to end hunger, but to also ensure, that vulnerable population including the poor have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. There is also correlation with goal one as poverty and hunger are intricately intertwined.
The most comprehensive bee studies in Kenya have been done in Kakamega Forest where, two hundred and forty bee species have been identified. Such forests are especially important for oligolectic bees that can only use the pollen of specific plants as food. Once these plants are destroyed, then those species of bees are likely to become extinct.
Thought there has been and increase in the use of honey for therapeutic and culinary purposes in Kenya, beekeeping remains relegated to mostly drylands. This means that the production of honey cannot meet demand and apparently a good amount of honey in use in Kenya is imported from Uganda.
These of course makes no sense as the possibility of every farmer having their own hive exists, even if not for honey harvest as the primary activity, but for the purposes of improving the quality of their produce and optimising on production for each farm.
Beekeeping has also been modified with the introduction of box and trapezium hives that are readily available in the market. But for some reason Kenyan farmers still prefer the traditional hive.
Apiculture is one of the areas into which any farmer can diversify. It has very low capital requirements, it is sustainable and in a country haunted by land issues such as Kenya, it occupies a small space.
It has the potential of not only drastically improving Kenyans food basket, but it can also increase export earnings. Most amazing is that a few bee stings is good for your immunity, so no need for fear unless of course one is allergic.