Albert Einstein once remarked that if bees die, humans would survive on the planet for only three to four weeks. The genius from Ulm recognized that insect pollinators were an important part of the human food chain and had not simply evolved to produce pretty bouquets for our aesthetic sensibilities. Globally, however, these pollinators are under threat and this is endangering global food production, particularly in developing regions.
The global crisis of bee populations and Colony Collapse Disorder is well known. Honeybee declines has largely been limited to the developed world (loss of wildflower meadows and the nectar-rich flowers which provide food for pollinating insects are thought to be one of the major reasons for their decline). However, there are other less well-known but equally important examples. For instance, stingless bees have virtually disappeared from many parts of Kenya due to over-harvesting and destruction of their nests. Currently, stingless bees are extinct in the Mt Kenya vicinity, though they were present there historically.
But what’s the current situation like for other insect pollinators in developing countries such as Kenya where food production has been precarious even in the best of times, which has led to chronic malnutrition and widespread hunger?
It’s a question the award-winning entomologist, evolutionary biologist and author Dino Martins has spent his academic life investigating in his native Kenya.
Pollination is an overlooked ‘ecosystem service’ that is essential to humanity, says Martins, Executive Director of the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya, and a Research Scholar and Lecturer in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. Pollinators intimately link wild species with basic human livelihoods, “One in three bites of food can be attributed to a pollinator”.
In Africa, the chief pollinators are primarily wild insects (entomophily) that travel between farms and natural habitats. Insects such as butterflies, moths, ants, beetles, wasps, midges and thrips directly influence the quality of essential food crops like avocado, eggplant, coffee, lentils, watermelons, vanilla, cow peas, eggplant, mangoes, pigeon peas, pumpkins, okra, passion fruits, cashew nuts, figs, guava, and tomatoes. Fruits and vegetables rich in color, for example, are a direct result of the amount of pollination that has occurred (the hawkmoth are the sole pollinators of papaya in Africa).
However, insect pollinators are extremely vulnerable to habitat loss and destruction, but there are other causes such as inadequate farming practices and pesticide use that put these pollinators at risk.
“In my work with farmers in East Africa - what I am typically finding is local declines or collapses due to poor farming practices or misuse of pesticides,” says Martins. “The vast majority of crop pollinators in Africa are insects. Where pesticides are misused, the insect pollinators such as hawkmoth and wild bee species as well as honeybees kept by people, are harmed. This results in localized losses of pollinators.”
While east Africa generally is not affected by “Colony Collapse Disorder”, there are some less well-known but equally important examples of insect pollinator decline and extinction. For example, stingless bees have disappeared from many parts of Kenya due to overharvesting and destruction of their nests. There are virtually no stingless bees now to be found on or around Mt Kenya, though they were present there historically.
Kenya’s small scale farmers are being seen as the key to the survival of pollinators such as moths, bees and butterflies. For example, there is interdependence between Kenya’s highly lucrative flower export industry, subsistence food crops and pollinators.
Martins’ favorite example is the African violet. The African violet is popular in Europe and the United States and trade in the flower is worth an estimated $6 billion annually. The flower grows wild in the Mbololo Forest in the Taita Hills bordering Tsavo West National Park and its natural habitat is the stretch of mountains between Kenya and Tanzania called the Eastern Arc Mountains, of which the Taita Hills are part.
Dino Martins discovered that the African violet is pollinated by the long tongued bees. These bees also pollinate the tomatoes and okra that the farmers in Mbololo grow. This fact alone is incentive for farmers to protect the forests around them, says Martins.
Martins is no stranger to forests. Although he was born in Nazareth, Israel, he grew up in Eldoret, Western Kenya. Not only does he consider Eldoret home, but describes it as a great way to learn about farming and explore the amazing forests, mountains and valleys around western Kenya.
“My earliest memories are of watching insects. We didn't have TV when I was growing up and I spent a lot of time watching the world around me”, says Martins, who is also National Geographic Society Emerging Explorer. “I would follow an insect and watch it for hours on end. I spent most of my childhood 'alone' but could always find friends in the world of insects. Whenever you look at an insect, like an ant or a bee, it is busy doing something - feeding, hunting, laying trails, communicating with its fellow nest-mates, pollinating flowers. Insects have been running this planet for some 400 million years and we have a lot to learn from them.”
Martins was raised by American foster parents Dr. Joseph Mamlin and wife Sarah Ellen. The Indiana couple first visited Kenya in the late '80s to set up an exchange program between Indiana University School of Medicine, where Dr. Mamlin thought, and a medical school in the western Kenyan city of Eldoret. The pair returned a decade later to a worsening AIDS situation and decided stay on and set up a small one room HIV clinic.
The Mamlins had the largest village-based HIV clinic in Kenya, and with a generous donation and cooperation from the Kenyan government, they established a larger clinic catering to HIV/AIDS sufferers in Eldoret. After his retirement from the Indiana University School of Medicine in 2000, Joe Mamlin returned to Kenya, and was reportedly nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work there.
“Joe Mamlin and Sarah Ellen have been one of the most wonderful and special influences on my life. They have been both foster-parents and heroes to me. They have supported and encouraged me to look at insects and the natural world and always told me to follow my heart,”says Martins wistfully.“I also have another 'family' in Nani Croze and Eric Krystal at Kitengela who have also been incredibly kind and supportive of me.”
By the time he was in high school at the Uasin Gishu Secondary School in Eldoret, Martin had a huge collection of insects with descriptions from personal observations and researched material. He was also an active member of the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya and the Young Farmers Club.
Not only are human populations in developing countries like Kenya threatened by the decline of insect pollinators but also the survival of Africa’s Great Apes, our closest living relatives. Martins conducted a study (unpublished) about pollinators and their contribution to the food sources of humans, chimps and gorillas. He estimates that one out of every three of the foods eaten by humans is made possible by a pollinator. Among chimpanzees nine out of ten foods they consume are the results of pollinators at work, and for gorillas it’s two out of every three foods.
“Chimps are the ones who really depend on pollinators as wild figs make up a very important part of their diet,” says Martins, a past recipient of a prestigious Whitley Award from the UK- based charity, Whitley Award for Nature for his tireless work on insects, and improving their conservation and understanding by farmers and the general public across East Africa. “Each and every species of fig tree is pollinated by a single species o fig-wasp. The tree needs the wasps and the wasps need the tree in order to survive. Figs make up to 90 % of the chimp's diet and calorie intake at certain sites.”
Martins research projects in Kenya revolve around people, plants and pollination, with insects playing the central role. His Whitley Award money has funded various projects that are being channeled through The Insect Committee of Nature Kenya (The East Africa Natural History Society), which seeks to unite conservation and sustainable agriculture in Kenya. The projects focus on farmers in and around the Rift Valley and Taita Hills areas and involve community based organizations, training extension workers and school groups.
“We have made good progress”, he says. “Farmers, school-children and community members from many different backgrounds have attended field days, participated in monitoring and learning about the connection between the food they eat and the natural areas/habitats around them.”
In his own experience with Kenyan farmers, Martins is already seeing a huge change in the quality and productivity through increased pollinator activity from very simple interventions and adopting of good farming practices.
Such interventions includes the cautious use of chemical pesticides (for example, not spraying while insects are in flight), since most pesticides are toxic to honeybees and other insect pollinators. Martins also advise farmers to set aside fallow areas and uncultivated land for insects to nest and rear their young. He also tells farmers to leave some uncleared ground and brush so that those insects that nest in old branches and twigs can use them, and to plant borders of flowers or leave areas for wildflowers where insect pollinators can feed.
Martins Whitley Award, which he won back in 2015, really kick-started a pollinator awareness Renaissance in Kenya.
“On a personal level the [Whitley] award has brought a huge amount of respect for pollinators and ability to share the message about pollinators,” says Martins. “I have been invited to speak at a wide range of major public forums about pollinators across the country. Requests for information about pollinators are pouring in daily from farmers across East Africa. Many communities are starting their own pollinator gardens and learning about monitoring and appreciating pollinators in their own farms and gardens. This is building a powerful citizen-science led grassroots movement for pollinators across East Africa.”
Dino Martins is the author of ‘Insects of East Africa’, ‘Butterflies of East Africa’ (with S. Collins), Grasses of East Africa, and: ‘Our Friends the Pollinators: A Handbook of Pollinator Diversity and Conservation in East Africa’. This book has been downloaded over 7000 times from the web and content accessed by hundreds of thousands of farmers through digital and social media platforms. In 2021, he also wrote and illustrated ‘Helpful Hannah Hippo’, which offers a glimpse on the value of friendship, kindness and compassion. The book is published by Penguin Random House, South Africa.