Why bees are important
Einstein is reputed to have said
'if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe,
then man would have only four years of life left.'
Despite being essential to the welfare of mankind and the future of the planet, the bee is under threat as never before. In many parts of the world bee populations are in serious decline. This has been attributed to a range of factors, from excessive use of insecticides to deforestation. (The apiary at Kumoo Kunda, Lamin was inadvertently damaged several years ago by insecticides used in adjacent orchards). The need for urgent action to save bee habitats and increase bee populations has been increasingly recognised over the last few years, including in Africa. The Gambia is no exception. The benefits of apiculture to pollination and agriculture and to the environment are well established and interest is growing in many developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Arica. While apiculture in Europe and North America is under severe threat from disease, African countries, such as The Gambia, have an opportunity to reverse the declining production of honey and other bee products.
What’s happening to the bees?
A great deal of press coverage in recent years has highlighted the problem of disappearing domestic bee colonies, possibly caused by a disease called Colony Collapse Syndrome (CCS), but, despite growing concern at international government levels and several years of investigation, no solution seems to have been found. Although it has its share of diseases and pests, West Africa at present does not experience CCS. The main threats to the bee in West Africa are entirely attributable to man. Many of the bees’ natural habitats have been damaged by excessive tree felling, an over-reliance on cash crops and excessive indiscriminate use of insecticides.
Many governments and international aid agencies are concerned with food security and protection of the environment but tend to focus mainly on biodiversity, genetic engineering, water supply and planting trees – in our view, too little attention is being given to the key issue of pollination. Some 60% of food crops are pollinated by insects, of which the bee is by far the most important. Yields can be dramatically increased (up to 40%) by a strong local bee population.
There are about 20,000 species of bee, but only seven or so species of honey bee. The main domesticated varieties are apis mellifera and apis cerana. A subspecies in Africa, apis mellifera scutellata is proving productive and resilient to climate change but these bees require particular management.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the extinction of the bee is a real possibility in some places, with disastrous consequences. Action of different kinds is urgently needed. We believe that forms of action designed to reverse the decline in bee populations is a high priority where we work.
Why honey bees?
Arguably, bees are the most important insect assets on earth and the only species managed by man. Beekeeping is a low tech, relatively low-cost activity which is possible in most rural areas and offers the opportunity of additional income, especially to people engaged in small scale agriculture. Bee products (honey, beeswax, propolis, royal jelly) are valuable and easily marketable. Honey has medicinal qualities which are more highly valued in parts of Africa than its nutritional or sugar substitute properties. Locally-made products, using honey and wax as ingredients, such as confectionery, wax based soaps and creams, offer possibilities of employment, particularly for women. That said, honey remains a luxury product beyond the every-day budgets of most Gambians. As at now, propolis is not harvested in The Gambia (as far as we know). Neither are honey bees (queens or micro colonies) yet traded. (BEECause is not in favour of international bee trading because of the risk of importing disease).
In The Gambia, beekeeping is traditionally a male activity, although there is increasing interest from women, which we are encouraging.
Arguably, pollination is the most important contribution made by bees, particularly honey bees. It is critically important to food production and the environment. Improved pollination means more seeds and therefore more plants which are crucial to crop yields (which can be increased by up to 40%). It is difficult to overstate the importance of environmental regeneration, for example, reforestation is crucially important to mitigating the impact of climate change. Bees are one of the key tree pollinators.
Of course, bees share habitats with other providers of pollinator services: insects, birds and animals, which offers another powerful argument for habitat restoration and conservation.