For more and better-quality food production, take care of pollinators

The evidence is clear: For big gains in crop production, our landscapes must become more hospitable to some of the planet’s littlest creatures— its pollinators.


Coffee pollination by carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.). Photo by Dino Martins

Bees, birds, butterflies, moths and some small mammals transfer pollen from flower to flower, causing fruit to set. This environmental service of pollinators is what secures the harvest of a huge proportion of the world’s food production.

At an invited talk at the Nairobi headquarters of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) on 8 January 2016, Kenyan naturalist and entomologist Dino Martins, the Executive Director of the Mpala Research Centre and Chair of the Insect Committee of Nature Kenya, delved into the intimate links between the world’s food security and pollination.

“One out of every three bites of food is thanks to pollinators,” he stated.

Martins warned that without pollinators, the production of many of East Africa’s major crops—coffee, nuts, fruits and vegetables—would collapse. As would food and nutritional security.

“Large analyses in many parts of the world show that most of the nutrients and micronutrients that people consume are thanks to pollinators,” said Martins.

“This is particularly true for poorer countries, where food fortification is not widespread, and any nutrients you get, you have to eat in food.”

Dino Martins speaking at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Photo by Daisy Ouya

Dino Martins speaking at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Photo by Daisy Ouya

Farm with more biodiversity than a forest?

Over that last two decades, Martins has led and collaborated in numerous studies into pollinator behavior, diversity and sustainable agriculture in East Africa, work that earned him the 2015 Whitley Gold award. This research has led to the discovery of many new insect species, and also shed light into the science around plant–insect interactions.

The research has also shown that diverse, well-managed farm landscapes greatly support pollinator health and biodiversity; to the surprise of the researchers, some of these farms trumped forest ecosystems in biodiversity:

“We found that well managed farmland surrounding Kakamega forest [in Western Kenya] had more species per unit area than the adjacent pristine rainforest habitat,” said Martins.

Coffee, papaya, milk and meat

These highly biodiverse farmlands were practicing agroforestry and integrated pest management. In addition to crops, they had hedges, trees, roadside verges, and nesting areas for bees and other insects. The small-holder farmers there inspected their crops regularly, using pesticides only seldom and judiciously. These practices supported pollinator numbers and diversity.

Bumper mango harvest on a farm that supports pollinators. Kerio Valley, Kenya. Photo by Dino Martins

Bumper mango harvest on a well managed farm that supports pollinators. Kerio Valley, Kenya. Photo by Dino Martins

On Mr Francis Kiplagat’s commercial mango orchard in Kenya’s Kerio Valley, Martins and co-researchers were astonished to find over 1000 different species of flower-visiting insects. The farmer uses pheromone-baited traps, an ICIPE innovation, to trap pest fruitflies, and also maintains water conservation ditches around the mango orchard. These ditches do double-duty as excellent nesting sites for bees and other insects. This farmer’s mango harvests—up to 12,000 mangoes weekly during the harvest season—earn him thousands of dollars each season.

Martins’ research on the influence of pollinators on various important crops in East Africa has yielded new knowledge, which has on several occasions debunked long-held assumptions.


Hawkmoth, essential pollinator of papaya. Photo by Martha Nzisa

For instance, Pigeonpea — a cornerstone of food and nutritional security in Africa’s drylands— is pollinated by wild bees (the carpenter and leafcutter bees, primarily).

And papaya— an important local and export commodity— requires pollination by hawkmoths; papaya yield is in fact directly correlated with the proximity of hawkmoth habitats to papaya trees.

Coffee—Kenya’s ‘black gold’— is not self-pollinated as previously thought; skipper bees, butterflies, and stingless bees do the job. And not just the quantity, but also the quality of coffee is closely related to pollinator abundance.

“For the best quality coffee, you want two beans per berry, full of flavor and with a good size and shape. And what produces that? The right amount of pollen on the stigma, brought by many insects, primarily bee visits,” said Martins.

And the harvests of passion fruit, watermelon, tomato, eggplants, traditional vegetables, and numerous other important crops in Kenya and East Africa all depend on particular pollinators.

Besides crops, meat and milk production in African drylands — one of the areas most affected by climate change— also depends on pollinators. This is because dryland animals like camels and goats depend on trees and shrubs such as Acacia, Indigofera, Jatropha, Crotolaria and Balanites for forage… and these plants depend on pollinators.  Martins showed research data from three sites in semi-Arid Kenya, which indicated that “camel diets in Kenya are between 70 – 90 % dependent on pollinators!”

Bee needs and public awareness

At the farm and landscape level pollinators need wildflowers and nesting sites, said Martins. And with awareness, farmers can easily establish habitats for bees on or around their farms.

However, East African farmers’ awareness about insects on farms is generally weak, with a lot of confusion and conflicting messages about harmful and beneficial insects from different quarters. Martins recommended working closely with farmers, and building partnerships with fellow NGOs and governments in building their awareness.

“Let the farmers do the research,” he said.

Simple on-farm studies, such as flower bagging experiments (in which some flowers are enclosed in bags and others left available to pollination), can have a large impact on farmers’ understanding of the role of pollinators, he explained.

“If we can influence farmers and give them the right information, the decisions they make will impact land-use, impact their lives, their productivity, but also have major impacts on biodiversity and climate change adaptation and similar pressing issues.”

Around the world, pollinators— and in particular bees—are in the spotlight, mainly because of the colony collapse phenomenon affecting Europe and USA. Bees have recently made the pages of The New York Times, BBC and CNN, Al Jazeera and the Economist, among others. Martins said he was excited with this interest and unprecedented “boom” in the research into biodiversity, pollinators, and especially the study of mutualism, the beneficial relationships between and among organisms.

The field of mutualism was pioneered by bee researcher Eva Crane, who termed the relationship between people and bees—the quintessential pollinators—“an ancient love affair.”

Download Dino Martins’ pollinator handbook: Our Friends the pollinatorsDino-book-cover

Dino Martins is currently working for the Mpala Research Centre as Executive Director and serves as technical advisor to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on issues relating to biodiversity, pastoralism and subsistence agriculture. He has a PhD in  Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University. His career has focused on fostering greater awareness for science and research in connection to conservation and human livelihoods. He was awarded the 2015 Whitley Gold award, a prestigious environmental prize for his work with local communities to encourage the adoption of more sustainable farming practices that conserve pollinators, boost crop yields, and benefit people in East Africa. Dino also chairs the Insect (dudu) Committee of Nature Kenya.

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Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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