Hope for pollinators as rural farmers turn to rearing stingless bees

Stingless honey bee farming in Taita Taveta

At 65 years old, Julius Mwarangu's awareness of climate change is informed by the mysterious disappearance of traditional honey-harvesting sites in the Marapu forest in the Tsavo ecosystem. 

These sites, respected by elders, were home to several large swarms of stingless bees, locally known as "mbuche".

Taita-Taveta County has several endemic species of stingless bees that are categorised based on their nesting location – either in trees or underground. They include liotrigona, hypotrigona, gribodoi and plebeina armata.

 Mr Francis Shingira shows his traditional hives at his farm in Marapu, Taita Taveta County. He is among 50 farmers that are provided with modern hives to domesticate stingless bees. 

Photo credit: Lucy Mkanyika I Nation Media Group

There is scant research on stingless bees in this region. 

However, experts from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) are mapping and documenting the population of the species with the hope of getting more concrete data on their population and distribution. 

According to Why Bees Matter, a 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), pollinators affect 35 per cent of global agricultural land and support the production of 87 per cent of the leading food crops worldwide. 

The report states that price tags for global crops directly relying on pollinators are estimated to be between $235 and $577 billion annually, equivalent to 20 times Kenya’s annual budget.

Local communities are beginning to realise that wild bee populations are no longer safe. 

To protect the population of stingless bees and to harvest their honey, Mr Mwarangu and a few of his fellow villagers have constructed log hives from dead trees to domesticate the pollinators.

The hives are kept in simple traditional sheds near their houses for security. 

Mr Mwarangu is among 50 farmers who are part of the Kishamba Community Improvement Organisation (KCIO), a local community-based conservation group whose work includes protecting the environment, wildlife and endangered animals and insects, including pollinators in Voi villages. 

"All my life, the bees have always been with us but now, you will be lucky to spot a big swarm anywhere in the forest," he said.

Human activities

Mr Charles Kuria, county forest conservator, says wanton cutting down of trees, forest fires and extensive use of herbicides by local residents have all contributed to decimating pollinators. 

High levels of poverty in villages push most locals to cut down trees for timber and charcoal-making while the need to maximise farm yields drives them to use harmful herbicides.

“Though forest fires and deforestation adversely affect bee populations, it’s the use of herbicides on farms that drive bees away,” Mr Kuria said.

Mr Mwarangu said the loss of livelihoods because of drought is the driving factor behind this destructive pattern.

"Nowadays the forest no longer gives us wild fruits. Our land is bare. We barely harvest anything from our farms as the yields have declined sharply. That is why people are rushing to cut down trees to make charcoal to sell to get money for food," he said.

Ms Martha Mwalugha, another farmer in Kizumanzi, said that with climate change, drought cycles have become more intense and frequent. She added that locals are lucky if they get one decent harvest a year.

“When crops fail due to drought, there is little else that can give us income. To survive, people result in cutting trees for charcoal and firewood,” she explained.

In addition, some residents, who declined to be named for fear of arrest by forest officials, admitted to cutting down certain species of indigenous trees for their medicinal values.

The barks, leaves and roots of such trees treat illnesses like the common flu, asthma and bronchitis.

Mr Gibran Mwakai, the chairperson of KCIO, said indigenous trees, whose pollen is especially nutritious for pollinators, have been extensively harvested. The woody remains are either sold as timber or used as firewood by residents.

Multi-pronged approach

Mr Erick Mwanzi, an entomologist working as a research assistant with ICIPE, said there has been concern about the decline in the population of bees over the years. After all, bees play a critical role in biodiverse ecosystems and are key to ensuring good crop yields. 

ICIPE has started working with youth groups and smallholder farmers in some parts of the Tsavo ecosystem to increase the population of pollinators (honeybees and stingless bees), thereby bolstering the livelihoods and food security of local communities. 

ICIPE is training farmers on the importance of bees to encourage local residents to be at the forefront of protecting them and their habitat from destruction.

"Our effort is on two fronts. We are engaging farmers to plant trees on their farms as we also construct modern hives that will accommodate these particular bees," Mr Mwanzi said.

He added that meliponiculture, the craft of sustainable rearing of stingless bees for purposes of harvesting honey and other products like propolis, is an alternative livelihood source for locals. 

Dealers in honey consider the sweetener from stingless bees to be of better quality than other kinds.

It is also more valuable, with a kilogram selling for between Sh1,500 and Sh2,000, compared with Sh1000 for other honey.

Several local groups across the county are involved in this project. Some are in Rong’e, Sagalla and Mbololo in Voi sub-county; Bura, Rong’e and Chawia in Mwatate sub-county; and Werugha in Wundanyi sub-county. 

They receive training on the best agricultural practices, learning how to operate modern beehives and harvest honey safely, without destroying the brood. 

ICIPE has erected meliponiculture structures, including sturdy sheds, where farmers can safely keep their hives away from predators and scorching sunshine. 

"We teach them the ecological importance of pollinators and how they increase farm yields in the horticultural sector," Mr Mwanzi said.

With the increased number of pollinators, they expect to witness improvements in yields and harvests in the region, which will help address poverty.

He said this will be achieved through working with farmer groups across the county that neighbour the vast Tsavo National Park. 

In Rong’e village in the highlands of Taita Taveta, farmers have already reported increased farm yields after they domesticated the stingless bees. 

Ms Agnela Nyatta, a local farmer, said that her yields have doubled since she adopted the project on her farm.

She said when the crop is flowering they carry the portable beehives to the farms to allow pollination of their crops.

She used to plant an average of 15kg of beans, which produced around 60kg, but she now harvests up to 200kg from her one-acre farm.

"We have realised that with the bees around, my harvest has increased. When there is enough rainfall, I get good harvests," she said.

She is among 50 farmers who have recorded a significant increase in their yields in a zone that has for years faced food insecurity due to climate change and other factors.

Good nutrition

According to a health and nutrition survey conducted in March 2016, chronic malnutrition in Taita Taveta stands at 25.3 per cent.

Three out of 10 children suffered from stunted growth, mainly due to a lack of good nutrition. 

The county director of health and nutrition, Elvis Mwandawiro, said malnutrition is still a concern for children and pregnant women in rural areas of the county. 

"Beyond poor diets and morbidity, which are immediate causes of malnutrition, there exist sociocultural political and economic factors. These include but are not limited to household food insecurity …, " he stated.

Mr Francis Shingira, a participant in the ICIPE project, has set aside a piece of his farm in Marapu to plant indigenous trees to protect bees. 

Mr Shingira has also set up 10 log hives for the insects as he awaits 100 modern hives from ICIPE. 

He has also been sensitising other farmers in the village to adopt the domestication of stingless bees and plant indigenous trees to improve the biodiversity of the area.

"I want my farm to be a model site for meliponiculture for other villagers to emulate. We are encouraging other farmers to do the same to make this area food-secure," he said. 

Indigenous trees

To conserve forests and biodiversity, the government is working with county forest associations in the Ngangao, Chawia, Fururu, Mbololo and Vuria forests on afforestation programmes.

The Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) has mapped degraded areas in the Coast region for the project that aims to plant over 50,000 indigenous trees in the next two years, said Dr Chemuku Wekesa, a Kefri regional landscape ecologist.

"We have formed agroforestry belts around the forests using indigenous tree species to form a buffer zone. We have negotiated with farmers to allow us to plant trees from a minimum of 10 metres from the forest boundaries," he said.

He said the project also aims to protect pollinators including bees and butterflies, whose populations have gone down over the years.

"We are planning to extend the project to other areas of the county. We aim to increase the indigenous trees in the forests," he said. 

The collaboration has seen over 15,000 trees planted so far. Kefri has also supplied farmers with macadamia seedlings to plant on their farms.

If successfully adopted at scale, the ICIPE project will resolve multiple challenges. Apart from safeguarding pollinator populations, it will promote reforestation and support initiatives to increase food security in rural areas.

Meanwhile, the county department of agriculture is also pushing local farmers to adopt bio-pesticides to eliminate the use of herbicides harmful to pollinators.

This story has been produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN).