How Kenya is setting the pace to explore pollination to boost food production in Africa
By Abdallah el-Kurebe
Scientists explain pollination as a means of transferring pollen from the anther of a plant to the stigma. Insects that carry out the task of this transfer are the pollinators.
Apart from their roles of producing honey and beeswax, bees are known for their role in pollination and there are nearly 20,000 known species in seven to nine recognized families.
Kenya is taking a lead in research that would enhance pollination to ensure food security.
Dr. Muo Kasina is a senior research officer in charge of pollination and pest management at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO). In an interview, he says that scientists at KALRO are carrying out research on bee species that could help to pollinate watermelon and other fruit crops.
“The team collects different bee species from different parts of Kenya to study their crop pollinating behaviour,” he says.
KALRO is coordinating the Kenya Pollination Project where farmers are being trained at Kakamega, Kilimambogo, Laikipia and Meru on how to manage pollinators on their farms.
The training further seeks to make farmers understand the pollination needs of crops and also identify best pollinators for greenhouse crops.
Although bees that pollinate are many: honey bees, stingless bees, solitary bees, bumble bees, euglossini bees, orchid mason bees, carpenter bees, squash bees, leaf-cutter bees, Alkali bees and Southern blueberry bees, among many others, Dr. Kasina says that the carpenter and honey bees are the best pollinators among other pollinating insects because they look for fruit crops that have both female male and flowers to make honey.
And although there is a wide range of crops that are pollinated by these bees, including okra, onion, cashew, mustard, red pepper, green pepper, papaya, guava, pear, water melon, tangerine, coconut, coffee, kola nut, cucumber, lemon, lime, carrot, oil palm, strawberry, cotton, walnut, apple, mango, avocado, pear, black currant, sesame, eggplant, tamarind, cocoa, cowpea, tomato, grape, the choice of watermelon is strategic.
According to Dr. Kasina, “Water melons are vulnerable. They make their own pollen for fertilization to take place and that is why we are using it in our study.”
With 500 farmers involved in the training and drawn from many villages across Kenya, the scientists are using solitary and honey bees, which have proved to work well in the study of pollination.
The involvement of farmers in the whole process of the study is most interest. They are trained,first hand on how to attract bees into their watermelon and by extension, other crop farms thereby seeing bees as agents of, not only honey but also most importantly, food production agents.
Field Trial Manager at Kilimabogo, Mr. Eric Mudama, told Journalists who undertook field visits organised my Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) that the training include covering up portions of the farm to prevent the bees from access to the crops while the whole field is watered to attract bees.
The result is that the covered-up portion would not attract bees and therefore no pollination takes place (then no fruits). Conversely, the opened and watered portion, which attracts bees and thereby pollinated, bears fruits.
Mrs. Naomi Gathogo Njuguna is one of the trainee-farmers, who at her farm demonstrated to us how the process of pollination is undertaken by way of attracting pollinating insects to her farm. It was exceedingly interesting how she put to practice her experience of the study to the amazement of the Journalists.
“We are trained to minimise pesticide use so that bees are not driven away from our farms,” proud Mrs. Njuguna told us adding that they are encouraged to weed and mulch the farms and also practice crop rotation.
The training has attracted Kenyan farmers to begin watermelon farming, which they now believe is economically viable.
Other African countries can take a cue from the Kenyan example of involving farmers in conducting studies on pollination as a means of enhancing food production.
Protecting Africa’s bees for world food security
This is just as scientists in a new world-class laboratory in Kenya are working to protect Africa’s bees and help farmers produce top-quality honey and wax for international markets.
The laboratory, located at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Nairobi, Kenya, will improve scientists’ “understanding of these unique creatures and boost food security by protecting these important pollinators.”
The three-year project funded by the European Union in Kenya and worth Kshs 1.7 billion (€14.7 million), was launched by His Excellency, Deputy President of Kenya, Hon. William Ruto, at an occasion attended by Ambassadors, High Commissioners, government officials and dignitaries from Africa, Europe and other parts of the world.
It was observed that in Africa and worldwide, bees were crucial for agriculture and the environment for which more than 70% of the world’s major crops rely on bee pollination to produce fruits and seeds.
According to a statement by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), honeybee populations across the world were struggling to overcome attacks from parasites such as the varroa mite and infection with diseases, as well as the dreaded Colony Collapse Disorder that has decimated bee populations in the USA and parts of Europe. The laboratory will endeavour to understand and prevent these problems from taking hold in Africa.
Director General and CEO of icipe, Dr Segenet Kelemu said: “Bees and other pollinators are significant contributors to food security and ecosystem health. Bees improve the environment and they do not prey on any other species. Aside from crops, bees also pollinate grasses and forage plants, therefore contributing indirectly to meat and milk production.”
Knowing the pests and diseases is the first step in protecting African bees and four satellite stations in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Liberia and Ethiopia will complement the laboratory to train researchers across the continent to monitor the health of bee populations to detect emerging pests and diseases and respond on time.
According to the European Union Ambassador, Lodewijk Briët, “Together with our colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, the European Union is proud to be supporting this ground-breaking research. It will protect African bees, agricultural economies, farmers’ livelihoods and food production over the long term. And my thanks to our partners at the African Union, who will ensure the benefits of this research are felt all over the continent.”
The programme aims to study the biodiversity of bees in Africa with a view to uncover the undiscovered bees that might be better pollinators for domestication.
Team Leader of the icipe’s Commercial Insects Programme, Prof. Suresh Raina said: “Africa is home to an amazing diversity of well-adapted bees, including honeybees, stingless bees and carpenter bees. My team at icipe, together with our partners, have already found that some African honeybees are resistant to certain diseases which affect European honeybees. By training researchers across Africa, we can find out what else is out there.”
icipe added that beyond bee health and protecting crop pollination, the laboratory would also work “to boost rural livelihoods by developing community-owned marketplaces for honey, wax and other bee products. It will train farmers to produce value-added products and develop testing and certification procedures, which will open access to markets across Africa and beyond.
Chief Animal Production Officer for AU-IBAR, Dr Simplice Nouala said: “We need to work at a continental level to ensure that bees in Africa stay healthy and productive. This central reference laboratory can help to coordinate research across the continent, linking with marketplaces, NGOs, the private sector, and national agricultural research systems to boost agricultural productivity and rural incomes.”
Researchers, technicians and students across Africa will use the laboratory to
“fight pests and diseases of bees, such as the varroa mite and Nosema apis, which can cause the death of entire colonies, and prevent the dreaded Colony Collapse Disorder, which is decimating bee populations in Europe and the USA, from taking hold in Africa; breed queen bees which are resistant to disease, are better honey producers or more effective pollinators, tapping into the vast biodiversity of bee species in Africa and monitor trends in bee populations to spot early signs of pests or disease, and to take stock of the biodiversity of bee populations.”
They will also use it to “train researchers at satellite stations in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Liberia and Ethiopia to monitor bee populations and bee health across Africa; share knowledge about bees and beekeeping with farmers and researchers, serving as a hub of evidence-based information and raising the standards and productivity of beekeepers and test honey and other bee products for pesticide residues and quality, which will open up markets in Europe for African beekeepers.”