Why many bee farmers fail – Professor Yusuf | Dailytrust

Why many bee farmers fail – Professor Yusuf

   Ass. Professor Abdullahi Ahmed Yusuf
Ass. Professor Abdullahi Ahmed Yusuf

Abdullahi Ahmed Yusuf is an Associate Professor of Entomology at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, specialising in honey bee research. He is the chairman of the honey quality and adulteration working group of the Apimondia African Commission, as well as an ambassador scientist of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in South Africa. His research interests include communication in honey bees, threats to honey bees (pesticides, pests, diseases) and conservation of honey bees. In this interview, he speaks on many issues affecting bee farming in Africa and Nigeria in particular.

How would you describe bee farming in Africa?

Although the origin of honey bees is not traced to Africa, Africans have practised honey hunting for thousands of years. In fact, the oldest evidence of honey hunting was found in 3,500-year-old pottery shards by archaeologists among Nok terracotta figurines here in Nigeria.

Beekeeping is practised all over the continent as every region, including the desert, has honey bees that survive there. As such, different methods of beekeeping, ranging from honey hunting to more advanced pollination services, are found on the continent. This makes beekeeping a lucrative sector, where different stakeholders participate, offering yet untapped potentials. 

Africa is home to some of the best honey-producing bees, but the continent takes only a small fraction of the global honey market. What are the factors responsible for this? 

You are right because our honey bees are still natural and in the wild, and are not bred like in other parts of the world. There are many factors and challenges affecting the beekeeping sector, which are too numerous to mention. Some of them include the lack of sustainable beekeeping, development, expertise and regulation of the sector.

There have been concerns that the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals is adversely affecting bees globally. How is the situation in Africa and Nigeria in particular?

The situation with indiscriminate use of agrochemicals is the same or even worse in Africa and Nigeria in particular. The reason for this is that unlike in other parts of the world where the use of agrochemicals is regulated, the same cannot be said for Africa and Nigeria. Most of the countries on the continent (Nigeria inclusive) do not even have clear policies on how to register agrochemicals, not to talk of regulating them. As such, you find out that even chemicals banned 30 or so years ago due to their effects on human and environmental health are still used in Nigeria. 

Let me give you an example. Neonicotinoids are one of the recent groups of pesticides developed in the 1990s but are totally banned for use in Europe due to their harmful effects on the environment. As a result of the total ban in 2018, the network of science academies brought together scientists on the continent and from Europe to access the impacts of neonicotinoids and advice accordingly so that Africa would not be a dumping ground for such agrochemicals. An expert report was produced, which was never acted upon by our governments. 

As we speak, our continent is full of banned agrochemicals, which are marketed and used with no regulation. This is sad because it is something we foresaw.

As a researcher, what have been the major issues with bee farming in countries like Nigeria?

Transformation of natural habitats through urbanisation and destruction of forests, which in turn destroys the natural habitats of bees, is a big problem. Beekeepers are finding it difficult to have safe places to set up apiaries. This also leads to not having enough bees to trap for sustainable management. Beekeeping is still practised without proper and adequate training. This has consequences, including destruction of the bees and contamination of hive products like honey and bee wax. 

There is the issue of vandalism, where hive products are either stolen or the bees and beekeeping equipment destroyed. The current insecurity affecting regions where beekeeping is practised is not helping matters as well. We discussed agrochemicals and their uses earlier on. There are many challenges to beekeeping in Nigeria that are hampering the sector. 

How would you describe the attitude of government at all levels towards bee farming? 

Governments do not accord the sector the importance it deserves; as such, they offer little or no support. The one that is available does not get to real beekeepers but to political beekeepers who use it as a conduit to make money, which is known amongst beekeepers as political beekeeping.  

Governments also do not engage or involve experts in the sector; it engages people with no clue or ideas on beekeeping. Therefore, the sector is left in the hands of developmental partners and those who are passionate about it. For the sector to take its rightful place and explore its potentials, such an attitude needs to change.

As an expert, do you think farmers can easily make money in beekeeping?

Most certainly, it is. Beekeeping is a value chain where not only the keepers are involved. The beekeeper needs people who produce the materials used in beekeeping, such as carpenters to make the hives, tailors to make the protective gears and those in metalwork to make hive tools, cell decappers and smokers. Then workers are employed to look after the bee farm. When the honey is harvested, bottles are needed to bottle it, then marketers to sell it. That’s not the end of the value chain but an example to show how important it can be.

Why do you think many people find it difficult to go into bee farming, particularly in Nigeria?

It is lack of expertise and knowledge on beekeeping and practices therein. Beekeeping, like many other professions, is not something that one just delves into. One needs to be properly trained in all aspects, which include setting up, managing the apiary, and finally, harvesting and processing the products.  

Many people make the mistake of venturing into beekeeping without proper training. I have several examples of failed bee farms due to this. In other countries, beekeeping and keepers are recognised and receive support from the government. The sector is also regulated.  

There is also a very strong and vibrant national beekeepers association that regulates the sector countrywide. This is what one finds in countries like Ethiopia, which is one of the top exporters of honey globally, and South Africa, which has one of the biggest pollination sectors on the continent.

Is there any research going on to improve bees for honey?

Honey bees have been bred over the years in order to improve honey, royal jelly production and pollination efficiency. However, as someone who is in favour of maintaining nature, I am not a fan of breeding honeybees for the following reasons: Breeding to select certain characteristics in honey bees leads to the bees losing their ability to fight diseases and pests, resulting in mass colony collapse and decline. Luckily, because in Africa we do not practise such selective breeding, our bees are still resistant to pests and diseases. Another reason is: We should protect our biodiversity and environment so that we conserve our honeybees in their natural state. 

Lastly, how does climate change impact bee farming?

Climate change has the potential to impact beekeeping because bees are part of the ecosystem where they play the important role of pollinating plants. Without bees, many of the food and ornamental crops we have will not be pollinated. Therefore, whatever affects the plants would affect the bees. For example, bees are very sensitive to environmental changes, and they synchronise their activities with seasons. They thrive more when there are floral resources, which they collect and store in their hives. Changes in climate which affects plants will greatly affect them. 

Temperature is also very important to bees because they have to maintain their hive at an optimum of 35˚ Celsius all year round. So colder days mean more work to them in keeping temperatures optimal. This means they will spend more time in their hives than in providing the ecosystem services we rely on for food production.  

Losing bees will, therefore, have a far greater consequence than anyone can quantify. How do we stop that? The answer is simple – by appreciating and taking good care of our environment. Let us stop using harmful agrochemicals and maintain only sustainable ways of food production.

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