Pollination: Key to Food Security and Environmental Health

Published on 23rd September 2009

A bee is attracted to a flower Photo courtesy
Pollination, just the transfer of pollen grains from anthers to stigma of a flower, is a goldmine for both Kenyan families and the country’s economy. While the definition seems to be simple, the process is complex and requires keen understanding by those who want to benefit from it. This process is barely given attention in our school curriculum compared with, say, many agricultural inputs. Probably that is why this goldmine has never been considered in policy formulations that target food security and environmental management.

So, how does pollination contribute to food security?

To answer this question, we need to understand the relationship of pollination and crop yield. According to basic science, pollen contains the male gametes of a flower while the stigma is the receptive organ of the female components of the flower. Simply put, pollen has the male eggs while stigma is the pathway to the female eggs. For a crop to get seed or fruit (from flowers,) these two eggs have to meet.... just like in animals! In this regard, without pollination, many crops grown by farmers would not bear anything. Imagine harvesting beans, tomatoes, sunflowers and pumpkins that had no flowers. Is it possible?

Nature is very interesting. Agents that help transfer the pollen are many. They include: wind, water, animals or just gravity. Also some plants, due to lack of pollinators, have developed a mechanism to bear fruits/seeds without the male gamete. This at worst is inbreeding, which results to weak offspring.

Examples of the animal pollinators include insects (bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and wasps), birds (hummingbirds), small reptiles or small rodents. Pollinators require pollen and nectar as their own food and also for their young-ones. They only pollinate crops by accident as they look for their food. Likewise, crops utilize pollen and nectar ONLY to attract the pollinators! This kind of association has been there since creation. Among the pollinators, animals have become fewer because activities by farmers/humans do not favour their survival.

Some farm activities that affect pollinators include lack of hedges (to provide food and shelter), use of pesticides (which eliminates their food or kills them directly) and lack of safe sites for them to dwell. In countries where they have realised the value of pollinators, such as USA, these pollinator-needs are provided.

Gains from pollination

Increased Harvest

Pollination increases crop yield and quality. For example, farmers growing beans would harvest 60 bags but if they provide their beans with carpenter bees during the flowering period, they will get additional 40 bags. Those growing sunflower will harvest 43 bags but get additional 57 bags if honeybees visit their flowers when in bloom. Farmers who grow cucurbits such as melon and butternut will harvest nothing if they do not have honeybees.

The current poor harvest in the country is partly due to the few bees that come to pollinate crops. In fact, the farmers still kill them unknowingly! Other than getting more produce, pollination also improves the quality of seeds and fruits. For example, beans and cowpeas usually have about 17% and 23% protein content when not pollinated by the carpenter bees. If pollinated, the protein content increases to 19% and 25% respectively! The sunflower oil content increases from 35% to 45% after pollination by honey bees while well pollinated melon and butternut is large, sweeter and juicy! I have documented this information very well in my research on pollinators, their management and economic value.

Income

In Kakamega District (Western province, Kenya) farmers growing beans, cowpeas, butternut, sunflower, monkeynut (barbaranuts), tomatoes, capsicum and passion-fruits gained KShs 210 million in 2005 due to pollination of their crops by bees. I have already published this information in the Journal of Economic Entomology, issue 2, 2009. Without the different bees, farmers would have lost that money! If such a small district can garner such benefits  from these few crops, what if the entire country with its different crops was involved?

A rapid analysis showed that 10% (KES 19 billion) of the value of crop production in Kenya in 2005 was due to pollination by insects! Lack of insect pollinators will deny this country such amount of money. Again, this is less than the pollinators can give principally because currently farmers do not manage these pollinators hence they do not optimize their uses.

Elsewhere in the world, pollinators are highly protected. Likewise, they contribute a lot in terms of money to farmers and the country. In USA for example, beekeepers are renting out beehives for pollination of crops. The beekeepers get more money from the pollination rentals than they get from selling honey! The country in 2001 reported US $ 200 billion as the direct gain from pollination of crops.

Environment

Pollination is very important in maintenance of good environment. Landscapes without beautiful flowers will look gloomy. Herbs that make our environment look beautiful are diminishing due to lack of pollinators- they cannot reproduce! Many medicinal plants require pollinators. Also many shrubs on highways, road reserves, and other areas are important for preventing soil erosion. Many are affected by lack of pollinators. Wild fruits that many Kenyan communities depend on require pollinators to reproduce. The tropical beauty is indeed in danger and will affect tourism in our country. Many tourists appreciate the tropical beauty of both flora and fauna. Without the flora, the fauna will also diminish since they cannot totally rely on plants that do not require pollinators.

How do we stop pollinator loss?

All is not lost. International organizations under the umbrella of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of United Nations have agreed to take measures to halt the decline of pollinators. Locally, several researchers are involved in activities geared towards understanding and managing the pollinators we have for our benefit. We want to establish pollinators of specific crops, so that farmers growing such crops can manage them. Likewise we are developing management options for different pollinators so that farmers can adopt such.

The Global Pollination Project is designed for 5 years and is being implemented in 8 countries under FAO coordination; Kenya, Ghana and South Africa (Africa), China, India, Nepal and Pakistan (Asia), and, Brazil (South America). It is geared towards utilization of pollinators to improve human livelihood and is a model development to apply in other countries. In Kenya, the project is being executed under National Museums of Kenya (NMK) but other institutions such as KARI, Universities, Ministries, and NGOs are involved. Dr Wanja Kinuthia is coordinating the project. Another new project is UVIMA (Uchambuzi Viumbe kwa Maendeleo Afrika Mashariki), which is geared towards making the people of East Africa understand pollinators, pests and invasive alien species. It will also provide products to the public to enable people manage these groups of individuals. In Kenya, the project is coordinated by Dr. Emily Wabuyele at NMK.

Other than these initiatives, Kenyans need to know pollinators so that they benefit from them. Lack of such knowledge implies there is potential somewhere being underutilized. As we find ways of actualizing vision 2030, young entrepreneurs should think of rearing pollinators and renting them to farmers for pollination of their crops. This is a Mega-million shillings business in Europe and America! It can create employment in the country!

At KARI, we are developing technologies that will help farmers and entrepreneurs to utilize pollination and pollinators. I am also involved in providing monetary value of pollination and pollinators. We are involved in developing effective policies that will enable conservation and management of pollinators for the benefit of the farmers and environment.

By Dr. Muo Kasina,
Senior Researcher and Pollination Economist
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).


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