Native pollinators for African horticulture

Do stingless bees make good managed pollinators?

Dec 17, 2018
Rescuing and collecting colonies of stingless bees (meliponae) in Kenya whose nests have been damaged by honey hunters.

Rescuing and collecting colonies of stingless bees (meliponae) in Kenya whose nests have been damaged by honey hunters.

Bee species provide an essential and important pollination service for wild plants and a spectrum of agricultural crops. In tropical or sub-tropical climates, aside from the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera), a wide variety of wild bees, including many stingless bee species, can be found.

Recent studies have shown that many of these bees are very efficient pollinators of different horticultural fruit and vegetable crops in open fields, in different parts of the world, as well as across Africa, helping to improve the quality and quantity of the crop yield. Subsequently, they also improve the farmers’ economic status through increased income from marketable goods. Depending on the species, these native stingless bees can produce a high-quality honey and this provides a further source of family nutrition and a commodity to sell, mainly to small farmer communities in remote parts of the country. But how would these native bees perform, when compared to honey bees, for pollination of greenhouse vegetables and plantation cash crops such as macadamia, for example?

To look into the viability of native stingless bees as pollinators of greenhouse horticultural crops, Bayer is working on a project in collaboration with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) to improve the understanding and knowledge concerning pollination efficiency and honey production. As with many of our projects, it has become a multi-stakeholder and international initiative with research partners also including The Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), the Kenya Forest Services (KFS), Ministry of Agriculture of Cameroon, Faculty of Agricultural Science-University of Kinshasa in DR Congo, the Resource Ecology Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Biobest in Belgium.

The project is divided into three parts, with the first part aiming to determine the pollination efficiency of ten different stingless bee species for vegetable, fruit and seed productivity and quality under greenhouse conditions. Two crops per year are being studied with sweet melon and sweet pepper already underway and strawberry, eggplant (aubergine), onion, sesame and two Brassica species to follow in subsequent years.

Talking to a macadamia farmer on a farm site visit in Kirinyaga county in Central Kenya.

The second objective relates to macadamia which is grown in quite ecologically-diverse agricultural landscapes across Kenya. Little is known about the diversity and abundance of the species of stingless bee which may be found in each setting, so this part of the project will look at pollinator richness and how this varies across a variety of managed and unmanaged ecosystems. The third area of interest is the characterization of the most important stingless bee species for agricultural pollination on both a molecular and conventional taxonomic level. This will be carried out on samples taken from various countries across Africa and will significantly contribute to the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA).

Following the recruitment and training of technical personnel for the project, work in the field got underway in January 2018 and significant progress has already been made. A series of ‘train-the-trainer’ events have taken place with seven participants from DR Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya learning about meliponiculture – the rearing and management of these native bee colonies. In addition, a stingless bee hunter has been recruited and trained. He has been rescuing stingless bee colonies whose nest had been destroyed by fellow hunters gathering honey and using these to establish a rearing site. This will supply colonies for use in the different crop pollination experiments for the project, going forward.

Dr Nelly Ndungu, one of the project’s stingless bee characterization researchers, measures bee forewings for comparison.

So far, field trials to look at the efficiency of seven stingless bee species on Galia sweet melon and sweet pepper pollination in greenhouses have been carried out. The melons have been harvested and results are now being analyzed. There’s a lot of melon seeds to collect, measure, weigh and compare! But when we have the analysis results we can fill you in. The stingless bee community assessment in macadamia nut crops in central Kenya is also underway. Researchers have found suitable sites and agreed use with local farmers. Many aspects of the project are season-specific and the macadamia part of the project proved to be no exception. Even though the project was ready to get underway earlier in the year, researchers had to wait until October before they could begin to see which pollinators came to visit, simply because that’s when the macadamia plants flowered and pollinators came in search of nectar and pollen. Gathering this data will enable the teams to understand which pollinators are around at different times of year and if pollinator diversity and abundance changes from site to site.

Leading on from this, samples of native bees, currently being collected at different sites from Kenya, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Botswana, will feed into the third part of the project. Two researchers have been recruited to the project in order to carry out DNA sequencing and genotype determination in the laboratory. To help with the characterization of the different stingless bees in the field, bee measurements and DNA samples are being taken from pre-existing collections in Madagascar, Zanzibar, Comoros and Kenya in order to enable comparison and help classify the new field samples. Just imagine, maybe some new, and as yet unknown, species will be found hiding in the undergrowth!  And the project is likely to further expand, receiving interest from researchers in Gabon, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Benin and Zambia. So who knows how many new species could yet be discovered!

A huge amount has been achieved in a relatively short space of time and it will be really exciting now to see just how all that we have learned and are still learning, can be used to help shape stingless bee keeping and agricultural practices going forward. High-quality vegetables are important African export crops, so as the project activities, which continue to run until 2020, unfold and begin to bear fruit themselves, they should also bring benefits for many farmers, both large and small-scale, across Africa.


Related information:

The Importance of Insect Pollinators for Agriculture

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