Bee farmers in Kenya are facing surging demand for honey and bee hive products, as the world’s leading suppliers in America, Asia and Europe grapple with a deadly parasite that is slashing world honey production, but which has yet to affect African hives.
According to research by San Francisco State University scientists, honey bees in many parts of the world are abandoning their hives before being turned into “zombies” by a deadly fly parasite in their stomachs. The researchers report that the parasite lays its eggs inside the abdomen of the honey bee. About a week later, the bee dies, and the parasite’s pupae emerge from the throats and heads of the dead bees.
The parasite is the latest in a series of afflictions for international beekeepers, with honey production in Britain, for instance, having fallen to barely a third of its usual level over the last two years.
Harvesting honey from hives hung by wires or in old logs has long been a source of small incomes for farmers in the dry regions, but in the last two years, commercial honey harvesting is taking off across Kenya using modern hives built for high yield and easy harvesting.
The rise of a honey by-product, propolis, as a wonder ingredient for the global pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries is driving new sales for farmers across Kenya, with groups and companies alike reporting that the demand for the product is growing faster than any producer can expand.
The hive product, which the bees use to line the nest and combs and to repair cracks in the hive, has become an active ingredients in skin moisturisers, food technologies, and medicines due to its ability to blend well with other ingredients.
It is gathered by the beekeeper either by scraping the inside of the hive or by stimulating bees to apply the substance to a plastic sheet with holes in it, which they attempt to fill.
Locally, companies like Tego Foods, Dotino Pharmaceuticals and Lightshade Cosmetics are now sourcing propolis from local farmers in newly lucrative business. According to Euro Monitor, the price of propolis has risen by up to 70 per cent since the 1990’s, when its uses were limited to food technology, now selling for as much as Sh4,750 per kilo in the international market.
This is stimulating new beekeeping enterprises across the country. In Mwingi, 20 bee keepers have come together as a group to supply propolis to a Canadian cosmetic firm which has been scouting for suppliers in Kenya. Due to “the high quality of honey and bee products we have had from Kenya, we felt that propolis must be of high quality,” said Lindsay Bitt the Marketing Manager at Hererra Cosmetics Inc in Canada.
The 20 beekeepers, who hastily registered their group to be able to export, have since been approached by other international companies and now manage to export about 50 kgs of propolis every week. “But even this doesn’t come close to the huge demand these companies have for this commodity.
We are trying to mobilise every household now to have at least three bee hives to at least make sure that by coming together, we can manage to reach the export target of 1,000 kgs that the exporters are demanding,” said Lameck Mutua, the leader of the bee keeping initiative in Mwingi.
Another youth group in Molo has just completed talks with a US pharmaceutical company Almaco Pharmaceutical Ltd to supply them with “as much propolis as the group can possibly manage to export”, as the pharmaceutical company’s appetite for the product increases after opening more branches in Asia and Africa.
“The idea is to have these raw products exported to us from the nearest source. Already we are thinking of opening a branch in Tanzania, since they are one of the largest exporters of honey and other bee products in the region, but even their supply cannot sustain us, which is why we are looking to other producers like Kenya,” said Matthew Keane of Almaco Pharmaceutical.
The idea for the Molo group came from an exchange programme with a young farmers group in Tanzania, who were harvesting the honey and all other hive products. “That’s where we realized how we have been going wrong. Once we harvested the honey we used to discard everything else.
We were shocked to learn that everything else that we discarded, which included wax and propolis combined, brought in more money to these group than the honey itself,” said Victor Kiige one of the group members who added that buyers of propolis now come hunting for them.
“Look for any company selling honey and explain to them you have propolis, they come right away, that’s how strong the demand for the product is. We have had about ten of the companies chase us to supply them with the product,” he added.
Propolis contains compounds known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity as well as tissue strengthening and regenerative effects. A 2000 Polish study found that mice given propolis lived longer than the mice in the control group.
Antioxidants in propolis are thought to have anti-aging properties in humans as well. In many countries where antibiotics are not widely available, propolis is used to heal a wide variety of wounds. Used as an antiseptic wash or salve, it is able to prevent the growth of bacteria in cuts and burns and promote the healing process in lesions of the skin that have not healed. Used as a mouthwash, it is able to prevent bad breath, gingivitis, tooth decay and gum disease and it is commonly taken as a remedy for sore throats.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
More than four-fifths of Kenyan mango harvests are lost to the African Fruit Fly. But a group of agricultural organisations now promise a doubling of yields on the introduction of a parasitic wasp from Hawaii that eats the flies before they mature.
A group of farmers assisted by scientists are now courting certain parasites and insects on their farms to act as natural enemies to other plant threatening parasites, in a model described as ‘sending a thief to catch a thief’.
Insects that include Ladybird beetles, spiders, bats and red fire ants, all long vilified as farmers’ greatest enemies, are now becoming farmers’ friends as multiple applications of synthetic pesticides by farmers fail to resolve the problems responsible for four fifths of the country’s harvests losses. Kenya currently spends close to Sh5bn a year on pesticides, much of it to battle insects.
However, the new farmers’ friend insects either secrete unique fluids that chase away pests, or feed directly and swiftly on the pests. According to many farmers, it takes just a week to rid a farm of pests with natural enemies, as against months when using synthetic pesticides.
Ladybird beetles have been in the frontline of the new techniques. The beetles, both in the adult and larvae stage of growth, prey on aphids, leafhoppers, mealybugs, mites, scales and whiteflies, which are known to devour cereals. A single ladybird consumes approximately 200 - 300 aphids over its lifetime of 1-3 months. Farmers have even begun growing wild sunflowers, with a higher pollen count than domesticated varieties, to attract the Ladybirds.
Rove beetles, another of the new friends, eat all stages of a wide range of insects in the soil or in the foliage, including bean flies, cutworms, scale insects and spider mites. Young larvae search the soil for cocoons of flies and after eating the pupa emerge sometime later as adults.
Last year, a unique parasitic wasp was even introduced into the country by the International Centre for Plant and Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), Agricultural Ministry and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and has recorded impressive results in parts of Rift Valley where it was dispatched to tackle the notorious African fruit fly that feeds on mangoes and avocados.
Orchards that have introduced the wasp, such as Lakita Orchard in Naivasha, have delivered yields of around 10 tonnes a hectare compared with 4 tonnes a hectare when they were using synthetic pesticides.
Beating the fruit fly has been vital to export revenues. The proliferation of the fly on avocados led to an export ban to South Africa that was only recently lifted, and which cost Kenya Sh200m a year for 4 years, particularly hurting smallholders, which account for 85 per cent of Kenyan avocado exports.
Farmers in Busia county of Western Province have even moved from the bugs and parasites to courting bats as predators to fight moths and other insects. “Besides eating tons of insects they have also been feeding on cucumber beetles and even Stink bugs which damage our tomatoes,” said Wekesa, a large scale farmer in Busia who claims bats are the most effective natural enemy of all because they form large colonies and have a huge appetite. One bat can feed on 2kgs of insects nightly, and they forage over large distances.
Scientists have also developed other natural enemies in the laboratories like the Diamond Black moth, which is very swift in feeding on the large grain borer that is catastrophic to both maize and woods. Scientists have been releasing them onto farms when there is an acute invasion of parasites in farms.
The moth provides swift pest control but does not harm the crops and allows for naturally grown food. “I strongly feel when we afford to control all pests without touching any chemicals will be when we say we have passed on a healthy chemical free future to our generation, and one way is embracing an agricultural system that imitates a natural system,” said Dr Ladslas Ritwo, a scientist from the University of Nairobi College of Agriculture and a consistent crusader of organic pest control methods.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
According to a report by the British Beekeepers' Association (BBKA), up to a third of Britain's 240,000 hives failed to survive the 2008 winter and spring due to disease and poor weather. This resulted to a drop of more than 50 per cent in honey production across the country. This was then followed by viruses and parasites that have further axed production. But scientists now believe that the problems may have been exacerbated, or even caused, by the new parasite.
The results have been severe. In total, Britons consume around 30,000 tonnes of honey a year – a figure that is rising by about 11 per cent a year – of which between 5,000 and 7,000 tonnes a year was domestically produced. This year the amount produced in the UK is expected to be barely 2,000 tonnes.
The story is similar elsewhere. In 2008, Argentina, the world's largest honey producer, had a 20,000 tonnes honey shortfall, ascribed to drought and pasture being planted with soya beans for biofuels, while drought and hot weather was similarly blamed in Australia and eastern Europe for drastically reduced honey production.
Against this backdrop, scientists have now discovered the parasite, which may have been fuelling many of the production problems. Apocephalus borealis is viewed as the second deadly parasite to hit the world’s bee populations.
In the past few years, Colony Collapse Disorder has wiped out entire colonies of bees. In the US, beekeepers have been experiencing annual losses ranging from 30 to 90 per cent of their commercially managed hives for the past five years. Likewise, tens of thousands of bee colonies have been wiped out in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
But in the latest research, published in a peer-reviewed science journal, Plos One, the researchers suggest that the parasite may explain what is causing Colony Collapse Disorder.
Biology professor John Hafernik, of San Francisco State University, found that after being invaded by the parasite, the bees abandon their hives in what is literally a flight of the living dead to congregate near lights.
“When we observed the bees for some time — the ones that were alive — we found that they walked around in circles, often with no sense of direction,” said Andrew Core, a San Francisco State graduate student from Hafernik’s lab,who is the lead author on the study.
Bees usually just sit in one place, sometimes curling up before they die, said Core. But the parasitised bees were still alive, unable to stand up on their legs.“They kept stretching them out and then falling over,” he said. “It really painted a picture of something like a zombie.”
Professor Hafernik believes the parasite, called apocephalus borealis, may be changing the bees’ “body clocks.”
The scientists don’t know if the bees with parasites are leaving the hives on their own free will or being thrown by others who realise they have become different. Bees that left the hives at night were more likely to bear the parasite than those who foraged during the day, the researchers found.
However, as the world’s honey producers work to understand the tumbling honey production, the officer in charge at the Kenya National Bee Keeping Station, Grace Asiko, reports that the Ministry of Livestock Development, local researchers are yet to detect the deadly parasite in Kenya, or in Africa.
Previously, China was the world’s leading honey producer in, producing 298,000 tonnes or 21.5 per cent of the world’s honey, followed by Turkey at 82,000 tonnes or 5.9 per cent and Argentina and the US, also at around 80,000 tonnes. Ethiopia is ranked ninth in the top ten producers in the world.
But unless a cure is found soon, the leading producers and exporters of honey and bee products will be faced with a massive crisis that can only be filled by unaffected areas like Africa.
“Our bees are free from such diseases. We are yet to detect that condition locally…occasionally we have had cases where bees diarrhea and die but this has been due to food poisoning, for instance when they forage on fermented food like molasses,” Ms Asiko said.
The region does have to contend with less threatening parasites like, varroa mite, which was detected in the country five years ago. A Varroa mite is a parasitic mite that feed off the bodily fluids of adult, pupal and larval honey bees. The parasite may also carry viruses that are particularly damaging to the bees, like those that lead to deformed wings.
It has likewise also been blamed for Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome characterised by worker bees abandoning their hive.
“Varroa mite is not a big threat especially when you have high populations. Generally they are not a problem for a hive that is growing strongly, especially in Africa where we do not experience drastic climatic changes. But in other continents like Europe, when the hive population growth is reduced in preparation for winter or due to poor late summer forage, the mite population growth can overtake that of the bees and can then destroy the hive.
“But we need to alert the farmers to be aware of the parasite because unless it is properly tackled once it has been detected, it can lead to the loss of colony bees,” she noted.
In Kenya, beekeeping has been practiced for many years, but only 20 per cent of the country’s honey production potential (estimated at 100,000 metric tonnes) has yet been tapped.
The economic impact of beekeeping has come in the fore in the recent past especially with the emergence of value addition including honey by-products used in the production of creams, candles and other products.
“The potential of bee farming locally is huge. At the moment it earns the country around Sh4bn, but we have not even scratched the surface,” Ms Asiko said.
“Local farmers need to invest more in the bee farming because it is less tasking and the returns are high. The export market has opened up many opportunities and with value addition, our farmers stand to gain handsomely because we are yet to be affected by the problems currently afflicting others.”
The current government policy on Apiculture is broadly to develop a modern beekeeping industry, but the policy paper on apiculture is still in draft proposal stage.
Beekeeping is currently concentrated in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs), which offer an abundance of bee flora. These areas include Baringo, Mwingi and Kitui.
Written by James Momanyi for African Laughter
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