Scientists in a new, world-class laboratory in Kenya — the African Reference Laboratory for Bee Health — will work to protect Africa’s bees and help farmers produce top-quality honey and wax for international markets. Located at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya, it aims to improve our understanding of these unique creatures and to boost food security by protecting these important pollinators.
“I am delighted to attend the opening of this well-timed, ultramodern complex, the first of its kind in Africa, that sits alongside and is the equal to recently launched bee health labs in Europe, USA, and elsewhere,” said H.E. William Ruto, Deputy President of the Republic of Kenya. “Bees provide our farmers with an often unrecognised and undervalued free service, and they play a key role in the pollination of our crops and plants, including our forests. With the global decline of pollinators on our minds, a better understanding of the local African pollinator diversity, their ecology, and health status, will provide valuable insights on which we can build upon to ensure we maintain this critical service for the benefit of future generations.”
The African Reference Laboratory for Bee Health is the centerpiece of a three-year project funded by the European Union in Kenya worth €14.7 million.
More than 70% of the world’s major crops rely on bee pollination to produce fruits and seeds. Bees also provide much-needed extra income for smallholder farmers, who sell honey, wax and other products. However, honey bee populations around the world are struggling to overcome attacks from parasites such as the Varroa mite and infection with diseases. The new laboratory will endeavour to understand and prevent these problems from taking hold in Africa.
“Bees and other pollinators are significant contributors to food security and ecosystem health. Bees improve the environment and they do not prey on any other species,” said Dr. Segenet Kelemu, director general and CEO of ICIPE. “Aside from crops, bees also pollinate grasses and forage plants, therefore contributing indirectly to meat and milk production.”
The program will take stock of the remarkable biodiversity of bees in Africa, looking for undiscovered bees that might be better pollinators, or more resistant to diseases, which will help us identify new types of bees to domesticate and breed.
“Africa is home to an amazing diversity of well-adapted bees, including honey bees, stingless bees, and carpenter bees,” said Professor Suresh Raina, team leader of the ICIPE’s Commercial Insects Programme. “My team at ICIPE, together with our partners, have already found that some African honey bees are resistant to certain diseases which affect European honey bees. By training researchers across Africa, we can find out what else is out there.”
Looking beyond bee health and protecting crop pollination, the laboratory will also work to boost rural livelihoods by developing community-owned marketplaces for honey, wax, and other bee products. It will train farmers to produce value-added products and develop testing and certification procedures, which will open access to markets across Africa and beyond.
While ICIPE and its partners conduct research, the African Union Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) will formulate a Pan-African Apiculture Policy Framework, focusing on honey bee production, pollination services, and bee health. This Africa-wide approach will allow for the incorporation of strategies, harmonized procedures, and legislation on bee health into national development agendas to take full advantage of the benefits of bees and beekeeping.
“We need to work at a continental level to ensure that bees in Africa stay healthy and productive,” said Dr. Simplice Nouala, chief animal production officer for AU-IBAR. “This central reference laboratory can help to coordinate research across the continent, linking in with marketplaces, NGOs, the private sector, and national agricultural research systems to boost agricultural productivity and rural incomes.”
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