By Stuart Thornton
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
National Geographic Emerging Explorer and entomologist Dino Martins works in the remote Lake Turkana region of Kenya and Ethiopia. He is researching the impact of human activity on populations of pollinator insects, such as bees, and how pollinators influence environmental and economic life in the region.
Martins teaches with the Turkana Basin Institute Field School. There, he frequently leads on-site “safaris” to help students discover and understand the insect world around them, and the importance of pollinators to the agricultural and environmental community.
“The Kiswahili word for insect is dudu,” Martins writes in his blog, Dudu Diaries, “and if you didn't know already, insects rule the world!”
Located in northern Kenya, the Lake Turkana Basin is a 70,000-square-kilometer (27,027-square-mile) region that is home to Lake Turkana, the most saline lake in East Africa and the largest desert lake in the world. The area includes three national parks: Sibiloi National Park, South Island National Park and Central Island National Park.
Lake Turkana, nicknamed the “Jade Sea” due to its striking color, is a major stopover for migrating waterfowl. The surrounding area is a major breeding ground for Nile crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and a range of venomous snakes.
Another unique natural resource of the basin is its rich fossil deposits, which have helped scientists come to a greater understanding of the evolution of the human species.
The basin surrounding Lake Turkana is arid and receives little rainfall outside the “long rain” of March, April, and May. This hot, dry region with seasonal rainfall is an ideal habitat for bees and other pollinators.
Due to the extreme climate conditions around Lake Turkana, there is a low human population in the basin. The people who live in the area are mostly small-scale farmers and pastoralists.
Martins also works in Kenya’s Kerio Valley, an isolated valley southwest of the Turkana Basin, and the Kakamega Forest National Reserve, a forest with more than 400 species of butterflies and 300 species of birds.
Human activity in the Turkana Basin and western Kenya is affecting pollinator populations and their habitats. It is hard to determine how many pollinators are being affected, but lower yields of crops that depend on pollinators suggest the numbers of these insects may be declining.
In the Turkana Basin, deforestation and charcoal production are wiping out the area’s trees. Acacia woodlands are being cut down on a large scale to produce charcoal. This affects the local pollinator population because bees rely on flowering acacia trees for nectar.
Outside of the Turkana Basin, the use of pesticides is causing the deaths of bees and other pollinators. These pesticides are designed to kill “pest” insects, which drink the sap or eat the leaves of crops. Unfortunately, they also kill helpful pollinator insects.
Overgrazing is also a threat to the pollinators’ habitat, because it destroys the wildflowers that are needed to sustain them.
Some farmers and pastoralists believe bees and other pollinators are nuisances, when in actuality they are essential to social and economic livelihood in the region. People sometimes wrongly blame low crop yields on the presence of bees and other pollinators, confusing “pest” insects with helpful ones.
But bees are essential for pollinating Kenyan crops such as eggplant, pigeon pea, chocolate, coffee, and cashew and macadamia nuts.
Pollinators also help livestock by pollinating their food sources, including alfalfa. When these plants are overgrazed, it has a negative effect on pollinators, which can also contribute to less grazing vegetation for livestock such as cattle, goats, sheep, and camels.
For example, one major food source for camels is Indigofera, a plant pollinated by wild bees. Martins and other entomologists have determined that overgrazing of Indigofera has affected its ability to reproduce. The overgrazing of Indigofera then affects both wild bees and camels in the region.
Pollinating insects in Kenya are important to many different human and environmental communities.
Pastoralists: Pastoralists are people who raise livestock for a living. Insects pollinate food sources for livestock, including alfalfa and Indigofera. At this point, Martins says he is only beginning to understand the importance of pollinators in these systems. Pastoralists are largely unaware of the importance of pollinators at this time, and their views toward the insects are mostly unknown.
To evaluate the impact of insect pollinators on feed crops such as alfalfa and Indigofera, Martins, his team, and local pastoralists are beginning a study with sheep and goats herded in the Turkana region. First, the scientists and pastoralists weigh the goats—a process Martins admits comes with more than a few kicks! Then, one group of goats is fed a diet of hay and self-pollinating alfalfa. Another group of goats is allowed to graze on alfalfa that has been cross-pollinated by bees. When the study is complete, the goats will be weighed again. Martins hypothesizes that the goats with the diet of cross-pollinated alfalfa will weigh more—and be worth more to the pastoralists.
Farmers: Pollinators are beneficial to farmers because they pollinate their crops. Martins says many farmers know little about pollinators and some can’t recognize wild bee species. There are farmers who mistake the bees for pests and kill them when they visit large flowers.
Martins says he evaluates his projects’ successes with farmers by one measurement: crop yields. If Martins and his team can demonstrate to farmers that crops cross-pollinated by bees and grown without the use of chemical fertilizers produce more, the farmers will invest in supporting a local insect garden.
One group of farmers who have changed their cultivation practices as a result of learning about pollinators are the women of the Nakechichok Women’s Group. These farmers, native to the Turkana region, harvest spinach, melons, and eggplants for sale to local customers, including the Turkana Basin Institute.
Like the Nakechichok Women’s Group, most farmers in Kenya are independent and small-scale. However, Martins is also reaching out to the few agribusinesses in the country. Although they are more hesitant to abandon chemical fertilizers, Martins has had some success working with the agribusinesses responsible for Kenya’s world-famous, high-quality Arabica coffee. Many coffee plants are self-pollinating, Martins notes, but Arabica plants require bee pollination.
Farmers who work land close to conservation areas (such as national parks) are often more familiar with biodiversity and pollinators than farmers near developed areas. Martins and his team have taken advantage of this familiarity to initiate a honeybee project. Martins and his team work with local farmers to establish honeybee hives near conservation areas, where bees have a rich source of pollen with which to make honey. The international market for honey, Martins notes, is vastly undersupplied. The rural apiculturists who work with Martins can earn significant incomes from selling their high-quality honey. As with crop yields, income earned from honey is a measure of Martins’ success.
Animals: Pollinators are essential to the creation of fruits, nuts, and plants that herbivores and other animals depend on to survive. One example of an animal species that is indirectly dependent on pollinators is chimpanzees. An important part of a chimpanzee’s diet—as much as 50 percent—is figs, which come from fig or ficus trees. A single species of fig wasp is necessary to pollinate ficus trees. Without fig wasps, there would be no figs for the chimpanzees.
Martins works with biologists to monitor the population, health, and diet of animals in the regions he studies. (There are no chimpanzees in the Turkana Basin.) By evaluating what foods animals eat and how that food is pollinated, Martins and his team can track the availability of the local food supply.
Tourist Economy: Even though the Lake Turkana region is remote and not visited by many tourists, other parts of Kenya and eastern Africa are dependent on tourism for a large part of their economies. The plant and animal species directly or indirectly dependent on pollinators help sustain this important economy.
Martins works with the Turkana Basin Institute and other organizations to preserve Kenya’s pollinators and their habitats.
Martins, and students working with him, conduct interviews with farmers to determine what they think about pollinating insects. He is also trying to find out what farmers would be willing to do to help protect the insects. From this work, Martins has learned that people know about bees—but do not know how important they are within the ecosystem.
One way Martins shows farmers how important pollinating insects are is by doing a demonstration where he puts a mesh cage or bag around flowers before they bud. These items keep pollinators from the plants.
“Most of those flowers don’t produce fruit, and if they do, it tends to be small and miserable looking,” Martins says. “Whereas the ones that are visited by insects go on to produce big, beautiful fruit.”
Once farmers see how important pollinating insects are, they are usually willing to do simple things to keep honeybees and other pollinators around. This includes creating nesting habitats for pollinators and “bee hotels,” which are constructed to be places for solitary bees to nest.
Martins says more than 2,000 farmers have been introduced to the importance of pollinators on their own farms and at project sites.
Martins teaches the next generation of Kenyans about pollinators by visiting the country’s schools. Martins has already brought his message to about 20 schools in Kenya, where he has educated more than 10,000 students about the important role of pollinators.
Martins’ work in local primary and secondary schools is mirrored in his work with the Turkana Basin Institute, where he teaches classes of college students enrolled at New York’s Stony Brook University. Students at the TBI Field School do incredibly detailed work to study how pollinators interact with plants—even using high-definition microscopes to look at discrete pollen tubes on the individual pistils of flowers.
Martins believes his work is to conserve “this incredible diversity of life we have on the planet” through preserving pollinating insect populations.
“We need to conserve not just the species,” he says. “If you just have the species sitting there without the pollinating in the case of plants and insects, it is not going to survive. So you need to conserve interactions as well. This web of interactions is what basically keeps the planet running.”
Communication and Education
Martins does a great deal to communicate and educate people about the importance of pollinators and other insects. His blog, Dudu Diaries, imparts his passion for bugs and shares his insect-related experiences with others.
Martins also travels to schools throughout Kenya, where he works with students to construct pollinator gardens and bee hotels. He is currently helping students make pollinator gardens at Kawalase Primary School in Turkana and Ikuwya Primary School at Kakamega Forest.
Martins also helps students create posters of bees.
“My big thing is always getting kids to look at the biodiversity around them and not feel that they are in a poor, remote area,” Martins says. “Because you are not poor if you have 400 species of bees visiting the tree above your classroom. That’s wonderful!”
Martins is also helping with the construction of a pollinator garden at the National Museum in Nairobi, which is scheduled to open in December 2012. The goal is “to reach as many people as possible and inspire them to be more curious and interested and celebrate pollinators,” he says.
Martins hopes to inspire young students to be naturalists in their own backyards, and maybe turn it into a career. When speaking to students, he stresses the importance of science outside the lab: “You can use it as a teacher, farmer, tour guide, whatever you want to be.”
Martins’ goal outside museums and schools is equally broad—to have “every single small-scale farmer in Kenya have a bee hotel!”
Martins says pollinators are essential to humanity.
“Pollinators intimately link wild species with basic human livelihoods,” he says.
Word about the important role of pollinators has spread as the 2,000 farmers who have been taught about the insects share what they have learned with other farmers.
According to Martins, some commercial farmers have even changed their practices after witnessing his presentations about pollinators. He says some of them have reduced or completely halted their use of pesticides.
Even though Martins’ work has clearly produced some positive results, he notes that the increasing misuse of pesticides in Africa is a growing threat to pollinators. After the report is published, Martins hopes to work with the government and the pesticide industry to find a way to limit the number of bees killed by pesticides.
Currently, Martins is working with Nature Kenya, government agencies, pesticide regulation authorities, and scientists to study the effects of pesticides on three different bee species in Kenya. Until pesticides are better regulated so that they don’t harm pollinators, Kenya’s population of pollinating insects will be at risk.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry apiculturist Noun
person who cultivates hives of bees.
a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.
Encyclopedic Entry: basin bee hotel Noun
artificial nest for pollinator bees, made of hollow bamboo stalks or other tubular material.
all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.
Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity charcoal Noun
carbon material made by burning wood or other organic material with little air.
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate conservation Noun
management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.
Encyclopedic Entry: conservation crop yield Noun
material produced by a farmer or farm, usually measured in weight per hectare.
destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.
area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.
Encyclopedic Entry: desert diet Noun
foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.
Encyclopedic Entry: diet diversity Noun
system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem Emerging Explorer Noun
an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.
person who studies insects and their interaction with the environment.
process of how present types of organisms developed from earlier forms of life.
material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.
Encyclopedic Entry: food forest Noun
ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.
remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.
Encyclopedic Entry: fossil fruit Noun
edible part of a plant that grows from a flower.
grazing animal Noun
animal that feeds on grasses, trees, and shrubs.
environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.
Encyclopedic Entry: habitat herbivore Noun
organism that eats mainly plants.
Encyclopedic Entry: herbivore lake Noun
body of water surrounded by land.
ability to economically support oneself.
livestock noun, plural noun
animals raised for sale and profit.
national park Noun
geographic area protected by the national government of a country.
sweet plant material that attracts pollinators.
an annoying or bothersome thing.
process of too many animals feeding on one area of pasture or grassland.
natural or manufactured substance used to kill organisms that threaten agriculture or are undesirable. Pesticides can be fungicides (which kill harmful fungi), insecticides (which kill harmful insects), herbicides (which kill harmful plants), or rodenticides (which kill harmful rodents.)
animal, object, or force such as wind that transfers pollen from one plant to another, allowing seeds to develop.
to determine and administer a set of rules for an activity.
trip to investigate, hunt, or photograph big game animals.
fluid that distributes nutrients throughout a plant.
alone or preferring to be alone.
person who travels for pleasure.
depression in the Earth between hills.
all the plant life of a specific place.
land covered with trees, usually less dense than a forest.
Encyclopedic Entry: woodland