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HomeFood and Farming ScienceFeared by mighty elephants but killed by pesticides- the tale of the African bee

Feared by mighty elephants but killed by pesticides- the tale of the African bee

The African bee is not a slay queen. She owes her allegiance to her queen and has the powerful sting and any African elephant can attest to this. At the sound of the buzzing of the soldiers that protect the queen, the elephant will flap its gigantic ears into a frenzy, stomping around in a craze. Many of these mammoth mammals have succumbed to thousands of stings from the killer bees.

And now researchers are exploiting this fear, training farmers to use the nasty sting to keep the rampaging elephants off their crops, hoping this will minimise human-wildlife conflict and maximise food production. A study in 2018 by a team of researchers led by Lucy King, of Oxford University concluded that this fear of bees was not confined to the African elephant alone as it was also detected among elephants in Asia.

Writing for The Times on the same study, Karen Weintrab, observed some that farmers in 11 countries had started maximising on this fear and had been using beehives loaded with bees as a fence to deter elephants from invading their farms. According to The Times report, when real and fake beehives were placed along a fence at 20 meters intervals, they prevented 80 per cent of elephants from the crops. 

This is not the only benefit of the African bee to farmers in particular, and humanity in general as a relatively young farmer, Richard Keter found out when he ventured into sweet melon farming in Kitengela, Kajiado. In January this year, Keter procured several varieties of the crop from South Africa, broadcast 15 tonnes of manure all over the 2.5 acres and then planted an estimated 6,00 seedlings of sweet melon. “After investing a lot of money and time, I was disappointed to discover after two months, that sweet melons flowers were dropping off the stalk and drying,” Keter recalls. Drawing from his training as an agronomist, Keter knew he had to do something or he would lose all his crop. This is when he decided to buy some bees. He bought three hives full of bees from International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi.

Two weeks later, Keter’s sweet melons were revived and where a plant was initially producing a solitary fruit, they increased to between five and ten.  Ultimately the farmer harvested 20 tonnes. The story would have been different, had the crops not aborted for Keter had planned to harvest between 30-35 tones. Still, this was not a bad return of investment considering that he only used Sh3,000 to buy the bees.

But what miracles did the bees perform?
The answer to this question is to be found in a study conducted by a Food and Agriculture Organisation ( FAO) in Kenya, Brazil and Netherlands which was published in 2013. The study found that bees are vital in pollinating plants and are crucial in food production. According to the FAO report, the total economic value of crop pollination worldwide has been estimated at 153 billion Euros and the annual economic value of insect pollination in East Africa has been put at 900 million Euros. The honey bee is the main pollinator of a variety of crops, chief among them melons, bottle guards, tomatoes french beans and coffee.

Despite its importance in the pollination, the bees have been decimated at an alarming rate, with devastating results, a development which is now sending an alarm, has been demonstrated by Keter’s sweet melon abortion.

Although the tiny bee has been credited with flooring elephants, scientists are worried by the dangers posed by some of the harmful farming activities which if allowed to go unchecked will have far-reaching consequences on 87 of the world’s leading food crops, which translate to 75 per cent of the global food crops, with an estimated value of 153 billion Euros. The situation is dire in Kenya and something needs to be done urgently. A petition to the parliament by Uasin Gishu Women Representative, Hon. Glady’s Shollei shows that unchecked pesticides in the country have dramatically increased from 6400 tonnes in 2015 to 15600 tonnes in 2018 depicting a rise by 114 percent.

Hon. Shollei wants the importation of pesticides, which are outlawed in European countries banned in the local market for they have adverse effects on Kenyans by causing cancer and harming useful insects among other things.

Joel Masombo, a researcher at Egerton University, says there is evidence that bee population has come down and colonies have disappeared in Nyandarua, Molo and Makueni. Realizing this reduction of bee colonies where farmers were reporting empty hives, he started a programme where he hopes to inculcate commercial beekeeping to replace the traditional methods. Using technologies and appliances adapted from China and South Africa, Masombo now can hatch about 200 queen bees per batch from 50 hives at Egerton University, which are enough to populate an equivalent number of hives.
This is quite significant, given bees swarm once a  year making it progressively slow to replace bees which succumb to harmful pesticides and other harmful chemicals as well as natural attrition.

Amos Kareithi is a writer, journalist and farmer.

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