Bees benefit both the size and quality of crop produce and are vital for increasing food security through pollination, says Dr. Wanja Kinuthia, Senior Research Scientist in entomology at the National Museums of Kenya.
Pollination, according to United States Department of Agriculture, is the act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma. Pollination enables the reproduction of crops.
Dr. Kinuthia whose research focuses on areas that include Agricultural Entomology; Bio-control; Pollination Ecology; Ecosystem Services, said that the contribution of bee pollination to crops is a provable fact and it has been documented in Kenya.
“We have also done some studies where pollination is excluded; that means where you cover the flower so there is no pollination, and then you weigh the bean or the fruit and you also analyse the nutritional content and you find that there is a big gap between the ones that are pollinated and the ones that are not pollinated.
“So the role of a bee is not only to produce the seed and the fruit, but to produce quality seed and fruit which have higher nutrients,” she noted.
Kinuthia was speaking during an interview with Sunday Timesat the sidelines of the African Union International Bureau for Animal Resources (AU IBAR)’s 3rd General Assembly of the African Apiculture platform for honey production, bee health and pollination services.
The event is being held alongside the 5th All-Africa International honey industry expo (ApiExpo 2016).
She was invited by AU IBAR to present on the pollination component, a subject she said researchers, bee players, the government have not valued enough.
“You can put in a lot of fertilisers and pesticides but the thing that is missing in your farm is actually your friend – the pollinator,’ she noted.
According to the “Thematic Assessment of Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production”, a two-year study carried out under the auspices of the Inter-governmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which was released in February 2016, revealed that global crop production with an annual market value of $235 billion–$577 billion in 2015 worldwide, is directly attributable to animal pollination.
The study shows that the vast majority of pollinator species are wild, including more than 20,000 species of bees, some species of flies, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, thrips, birds, bats and other vertebrates.
Pollination enables high and quality yield
In addition, the IPBES study states that pollinator-dependent food products are important contributors to healthy human diets and nutrition. Pollinator-dependent species encompass many fruit, vegetable, seed, nut and oil crops, which supply major proportions of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals in the human diet.
Dr. Kinuthia said that “If we can increase proper kitchen gardens and ensure that the pollinators in the kitchen gardens are maintained, you find that the nutrients of whatever vegetables or legumes or fruit they are growing would be higher,” she said.
She said that the “work we have done in Kenya shows that the coffee quality, the weight, the taste, whatever it is that they look at when they are valuing coffee, increases when the coffee is pollinated.”
The Head of Commercial Insects at Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), Willy Mwiza said that in Rwanda, many people are not yet aware of the importance of pollination but noted some have started laying beehives in their fields.
He said “when bees have pollinated crops, it does not only benefit their size but also their quality,” adding that bees also benefit by increasing their honey production in the process.
The Chairperson of Apitrade Africa Board, Harun N Baiya said that stronger apiculture sector is good for agriculture development especially through pollination services. “And we know that at least 35% of our all our food crops and cash crops are pollinated by bees,” he noted.
Dr. Luka Daba Jwander from Nigeria Veterinary Research Institute said that some countries have started to import bees to pollinate their crops as bee-led pollination results in high and quality yield.
Professor Ahmed El Sawalhy, AU IBAR Head of Mission Director noted that priority focus for achieving agriculture transformation include quality seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, but noted that attention has been given to pollination which can result in similar productivity necessary for achieving the desired food security outcomes.
“In addition, increased pollination services will help beekeepers have up to 20 times more income than honey and other beehives products,” he said.
Under pollination services, beekeepers get paid to bring their hives into a given crop plantation for controlled and effective pollination of crops. However, beekeepers can also offer to provide a pollination service so that their bees get nectar from crops.
Need to take care of bees
But, despite their good impact on crop production, the pollination species ‘are not entirely in safe hands’ as according to the IPBES study on pollination and pollinators, 16.5% of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with extinction globally and over 40% of invertebrate pollinator species – particularly bees and butterflies – are facing extinction by diverse pressures, many of them being human-made such as pesticides (mainly insecticides), which leads to the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars annually as pollination- dependent crop yield fails.
Dr. Luka Daba Jwander said that bees have given much too humanity than human beings are giving to the bees as they improve crops for increased yield through pollination, advising people to farm and keep bees closer in a way that benefit both the crops and the bee.
Dr. Kinuthia said that farmers should ensure minimal or no pesticides are used in crops or other vegetation that they have natural areas for the pollinators to find nectar, a place to nest and that there is no disturbance nor fire or burn of organic materials, rather let them decompose into manure “because most insects like honeybees fear fire because when they smell smoke, they run away.”
Stressing the need to safeguard the appropriate places for the insects that do the pollination to stay, she said that the insect called carpenter bee, which is efficient pollinator of legumes such as beans and passion fruit, makes its home (nest) in dried wood and tree twigs.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), approximately 80 percent of all flowering plant species are specialized for pollination by animals, mostly insects, and they affect 35 percent of the world’s crop production, increasing the output of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide.
“Pollination is therefore critical to crop production, and awareness of this essential ecosystem service is important for everyone – the general public including school children, farmers, but also decision makers from local, national to international levels,” FAO states.