It is mid-morning in the bushy village of Marapu in lower Sagalla, Voi sub-county.
The old farmer reaches out to inspect a tiny log hive hanging from a makeshift thatched shelter outside his hut. The touch sends a swarm of tiny flying insects whirling madly around its head.
Carefree, he inspects the hive for cracks. He finds none. It replaces the hive. The frenzy ebbs. The swarm settles back in except for a few curious insects still buzzing around the narrow, wax-covered entrance.
“They don’t like to be disturbed, but I have to check if the hive is intact,” says Mr. Julius Mwarangu as he moves on to the next hive.
At 65, Mwarangu admits inspecting his hives is a ritual he loves. This keeps him connected to the halcyon days when massive swarms of stingless bees affectionately known to locals as ‘Mbuche‘ thrived in wild bushes throughout the Sagalla region.
He recalls that stingless bees were a crucial part of the Sagalla community. Honey of mbuche feed the shepherds as they grazed on the plains.
Women on firewood collecting trips in the forest collected honey to sweeten food while traditional healers used it to supplement traditional herbal medicines for the treatment of various ailments.
“Stingless bees have been part of the community for as long as we can remember. Those days are now over,” he says.
Currently, the stingless swarms have practically disappeared. In the region, stingless bees are only found in areas of dense bush and areas where trees have escaped the thunderbolts of charcoal burners. Even then, the surviving swarms are relatively small compared to those of the past.
“The territory has changed. Mbuche disappear,” he explains. The nostalgic note in his voice is hard to miss.
Environmentalists say the disappearance is attributed to a number of factors. They include climate change, indiscriminate felling of native trees, prolonged drought, and overuse of herbicides on farms.
The invasion of illegal camels that browse the vegetation whose flowers provide fodder for bees has also been blamed for the decline.
Mr Charles Kuria, Conservator of County Forests with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), said that in addition to the use of chemicals on farms, the increase in forest fires during dry seasons has contributed to the loss of swarms.
“Apart from the intensive use of chemicals on farms, the frequent fires that ravage forests and bushes contribute significantly to the decline of these pollinators,” explains the official.
However, an ambitious project Kishamba Community Improvement Organization (KCIO), a local community conservation organization and the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) are expected to halt the decline of the stingless bee population.
The project introduced farmers to meliponiculture; the breeding of stingless bees, with the aim of strengthening the population of stingless bees and increasing household income through the sale of honey from the activity.
Over the past two years, the two organizations have worked closely with small-scale farmers in several rural villages in the county to promote stingless beekeeping as a business. This is primarily to diversify national incomes and strengthen local food production through targeted on-farm pollination initiatives.
Already, more than sixty selected farmers and youth groups are engaged in this activity in several villages in the project area. These villages include Bura and Rong’e in Mwatate; Werugha in Wundanyi and Sagalla in Voi sub-county.
Mr. Eric Mwanzi, an entomologist at ICIPE, says local farmers are embracing the initiative as they receive proper support and training.
The training covers hive management, hive hygiene, swarm separation, brood care and safe honey harvesting methods.
In addition to training, ICIPE distributes modern hives and other support structures to farmers for an optimal environment necessary for the stability and regeneration of swarms. “Farmers are gradually embarking on this activity. The modern stands and hives we provide will improve productivity,” he explained.
Maintaining the stingless bee population is also essential to boost agricultural production in areas with high agricultural productivity. Mr Mwazi says stingless bees are among the most effective pollinators for agriculture in a controlled environment.
Mr. Gibran Mwakai, chairman of the KCIO, says his group educates local farmers on the importance of conservation. He notes that native trees that provide rich food for stingless bees are being over-harvested on the brink of extinction due to their medicinal value.
The trees, he says, contain herbal remedies to treat ailments like respiratory infections and the flu. “Local residents harvest the trees for their medicinal value. These trees provide valuable food for stingless bees,” he explained.
Some of the native trees include Ganjahika (medicinal tree), Mlasina (sausage tree) and Mremavula (Marula tree) among others.
Francis Shingira, a young farmer from Marapu, says groups of young people in the village have answered the call to urge residents to spare native trees and raise stingless bees. He adds that the potential income from the sale of honey was encouraging, spurring young people to take up stingless beekeeping.
“Bees are easy to keep and can co-exist with other pets,” he says.
It is expected that ICIPE will expand this activity to areas outside the project area to encourage more people to participate in stingless beekeeping.
By Wagema Mwangi