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The pollinator protectors of Kenya

Wild bee visiting an eggplant flower, Kenya Wild bee visiting an eggplant flower, Kenya Whitley Fund for Nature
30 Apr
2015
Pollinating insects are facing a global crisis, attacked with pesticides by farmers around the world. But work being undertaken in Kenya is showing how farmers and insects could live together in harmony

Passion fruit farmers in Kenya are very protective of their crops, not least because of their financial investment.

They are understandably not thrilled therefore when they discover beetles flying around their fruits. As a result, many Kenyan farmers will treat their crops with pesticides on a regular basis, to kill the beetles and protect the crops.

Unfortunately, they aren’t beetles. They’re carpenter bees, very large and heavy insects, which are essential for pollination of the passion fruit crops. And yet, they give farmers the impression that their crops are under attack by hungry beetles, so their resulting pesticide-based intervention has led pollinator numbers to decline dramatically.

‘There is a lot of traditional knowledge around pollination, but in the small-scale farming community, the challenge is putting it in the context of food production and sustainability,’ Dr Dino Martins, a Kenyan entomologist tells Geographical. Martins is Chair of the Insect Committee of Nature Kenya, and has spent the past fifteen years working with farmers in East Kenya, explaining the importance of pollinators – such as the carpenter bee – to crop production, and helping farmers identify those essential pollinators from pests.

‘There is a lot of misinformation about pesticides, and that’s one of the biggest challenges we need to address,’ Martins continues. ‘People have been told “Just spray a little pesticide every week, it’s good for your crops.” And that’s not true. There are very strict ways you’re supposed to use pesticides, and you should absolutely not spray when the pollinators are around.’

Once farmers understand the importance of pollinators to their crops, the pesticide problem evaporates. Martins describes a small mango farm in the Kerio Valley in northwest Kenya, where over a thousand pollinator species can be found in just a few hectares. ‘That mango farmer gets up to a thousand mangoes per tree,’ he explains. ‘Each mango sells for two or three dollars. That’s three thousand dollars per tree per year in mangoes. No pollinators, no mangoes. So he’s willing to do everything to protect the habitat because he’s exporting mangoes and making a lot of money off it.’

dino-farmers-38Dino Martins with Kenyan farmers (Image: WFN)

It’s estimated that one out of every three bites of food we take is dependent on the work of pollinators, and it has been calculated to be worth up to $250billion annually to the global economy. But at a more local level, killing pollinators with pesticides has a significant impact on yields – and therefore profits – for these Kenyan farmers.

Dino Martins conducts experiments with the passion fruit farmers. From a crop yield of only 4kg, which he describes as ‘miserable’, his intervention enabled a tenfold increase, to between 40kg and 50kg. ‘Once you do that, that farmer becomes the biggest spokesperson for bees,’ he smiles.

These successes have been achieved with measures such as tracking the behaviour of different pollinating insects, and then educating farmers about when, if they are going to use pesticides, they should spray their crops so as to not harm the pollinators. Additionally, he has made farmers aware of alternatives to commonly-used pesticides, either ones which are simply less toxic, or more natural fixes, such as introducing predators to hunt the genuine pests.

His successes include reducing pesticide use by up to 75 per cent on over 500 farms – all of whom have experienced increased crop yields – while ten per cent have stopped using them altogether. One farmer burst into tears after Martins explained the damage which pesticides do to agricultural land, announcing that he had applied over 25 tonnes of pesticides to his land in recent years. He has now gone fully organic.

‘What is incredible,’ continues Martins, ‘is when we actually put in simple things like hedgerows, protecting habitats, managing pesticides, working with farmers to create actual nesting sites for bees, protecting the existing ones, bringing bees in if need be: the yields go up, the health of the farm improves, and the income for the farmer improves.’

Martins was helped with his work as a winner of a Whitley Award in 2009, from the Whitley Fund for Nature, and his continued contribution to conservation was recognised this week as the Gold Award winner at the 2015 Whitley Awards. The £50,000 prize money will enable him to scale up his operations; training new farmers, educating students, and continuing to lobby the Kenyan government to develop legislation to ban several highly toxic pesticides.

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