One man's mission to create a buzz around the power of pollinators
How well do you know your pollinators? Can you tell the difference between a pest that could damage a crop or an unusual species of bee that forms a vital part of the pollination cycle? With more than 1,000 species of pollinators in Kenya, mistaken identity is commonplace. Farmers have a tendency to liberally spray pesticides thinking they're doing the right thing to kill off the pest that will damage their crop. However, the reality is very different because those 'foes' are not enemies at all; in fact they are the 'heroes' of agriculture.
Entomologist and conservationist Dr. Dino Martins, a native Kenyan, has recently been honored with the Whitley Award for his work as a pollinator champion, helping spark a cultural change in farming practices to improve yields, crops and the well-being of families.
"Kenya is this amazing country filled with all this diversity; large animals, small animals, wildlife and insects. Most farmers view insects as pests but in reality most of the insects that farmers have on their land and around their crops are useful," Martins tells www.freshfruitportal.com.
"They re pollinators of the crops, they are predators of the pests, are involved in nutrient cycling in the soil and are basically keeping the whole system running.
"Really understanding the richness of the farming system as a habitat and connecting management of that as productivity and also with conservation, has really been the essence of the work we're doing in Kenya."
A case of mistaken identity
Martins travels vast distances around the African country at a grassroots level to pass on knowledge that will help farmers grow better quality mangoes, or increase the yields of papayas, passionfruit or any one of the main fruit crops of the region.
Remarkably what he demonstrates is quite simple. But the simple things in life can often be the most rewarding.
"Misidentifying pollinators as pests is one of the challenges we face. While many farmers have very good traditional knowledge of insects, many insects are hard to tell apart; they are very small, some are scary and people don't spend that much time looking at them. So how do you tell what actually is contributing to your farm versus what is a challenge and a pest?
"And that's a big issue. Not just for farmers by identifying the pests or the pollinators but it has huge ramifications."
Using Martin's analogy, think about it this way. What happens when you get sick? You go to the doctor for treatment and medication. But what happens when a Kenyan farmers' crops gets sick?
"They start pouring chemicals all over their plants, often without thinking about diagnosing the problem correctly and people use pesticides far too liberally, not just in Africa but all over the world.
"Often the problem is not what they think it is. It could be a blight caused by a little bit of fungus so pesticide is not the way. One of the key things from identifying the species correctly as the pest or the pollinator, and then making good decisions on your farm, is that it protects not just the environment, the water and the soil but your health and that of your family."
By engaging Kenyan farmers, Martins has shown them a natural way to increase yields and produce better quality fruit that will be well received on both domestic and export markets.
"While many conservationists see farmers as the enemy, my argument is that farmers are actually the ones who will change the world because they have this huge power in their hands. They are right at the interface of nature and technology."
"There"s a wide range of crops like mangoes, papaya, coffee beans, watermelons, passionfruit, the squash family, other cucurbits and traditional vegetables. Many plants have separate flowers on the same plant and so require very high pollination to be successful.
"With watermelon, 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 grains of pollen need to land on the stigma to really produce a really robust watermelon that has a really nice shape, a nice color and nice flavor and that is part of what we we have done."
He says there is no point in a scientist doing an experiment, getting data and publishing it because "that doesn't make a difference in the system whilst really getting the farmer involved does".
Breeding experiments that empower growers to see for themselves
By actually going into the field armed with some nets and bags, Martins shows farmers first-hand the difference getting good pollination can make to yields.
"Farmers are busy and we can't expect them to drop what they are doing and do research but we simply have a net bag that we exclude pollinators from certain flowers and next to them we have flowers that we tag that the pollinators come to and the farmer then has to watch what happens over the next few weeks and that is a hugely eye opening is for people.
"Farmers are blown away. I wish I could capture the look on some of their faces when the joy, surprise and excitement come together when they realize 'those bees I'm keeping in a hive or those things that are nesting in the wall of my house or those wasps whose nests are an annoyance or insects that occur on my farm that I didn't even know existed are really what's producing the yield that I’m harvesting'."
Martins worked with farmer Francis Kiplagat from the Kerio Valley who produces mangoes, bananas, avocados, pigeon peas and leafy vegetables as well as raising cattle on a small scale.
As one of Martin's 'champion farmers', Kiplagat is widely considered one of the most exemplary farmers in the region and often sought out for farming advice.
"We walk and work alongside the farmers and we identify 'champion farmers' because they're the ones who are already trusted in the community, holders of indigenous knowledge and savers of seed. Both men and women and it’s not hard to identify their farms.
If you look at Google Earth you can often see a farm that looks healthy and one that doesn’t look very healthy, it’s amazing because the signature is evident even from the satellite."
He says the team works alongside Nature Kenya, and also has 'farm and field schools' as well as field days.
This ripple effect can be extremely persuasive, especially in remote communities where word of mouth and seeing for oneself has a much greater impact.
"When farmers realize that by cutting out unnecessary pesticide use and correctly identifying pollinators as 'friends', yields of crops dramatically go up.
"We have seen people become very excited by learning. For example, one of the mango farmers has really become such a champion not just for pollinators but for rain water harvesting, terracing, soil conservation, protecting bird life, planting hedge rows and for all these good agricultural practices that make the place extremely rich.
"It absolutely transforms their lives and that’s the power of this. I can show a strong impact on yield, that’s what the farmer cares about. For example, in passionfruit farming in the Kerio Valley we have managed to get a ten-fold increase on some farms and that was simply because people were misidentifying the pollinators as pests and killing them.
Watermelon production is another success story. Martin details how farmers were previously harvesting misshapen watermelons with bad coloring and a lack of flavor.
"They were blaming this on ripening issues but it turns out that most of the quality of the fruit is very much driven by the pollination so if you don’t have adequate pollination in terms of the biology of those plants then you get the misshapen watermelons that don’t have very good flavor and so on."
Other learning tools
Dr. Martins also hosts structured learning programs inviting agricultural officials to join farmers in workshops that discuss all types of farming practices.
"We encourage farmers and communities to have more regional local gatherings so we give them the information and the publications translated into local languages so they can also have their own dialogue about all of this and share it with others in the community.
"The look on a farmer's face when they first take a look through the microscope is priceless. We take a microscope into the field or a little hand lens and just show them and say 'look at this plant bug' and they are just blown away. People don't realize aphids are animals, giving birth, and are a huge part of the interaction in agriculture even though they are so tiny.
"Once you realize that, your understanding of the world is expanded and then how you manage your farm in response to that absolutely changes."
The Whitley Award
Dr. Martins is very modest about his achievements, preferring to call himself 'a messenger' but really he has been responsible for providing a free eco-system service and agricultural masterclasses to thousands of people over the years; a priceless contribution to the conservation of his homeland.
Receiving the £50,000 (US$ 78,879) Whitley Award at a London ceremony last month was a big deal, not least for its recognition of his work to conserve pollinators, boost crop yields and partly contribute to Kenya adopting its first legislation to specifically protect bees from harmful pesticides.
"Without pollinators, the planet’s food security would be at risk, with significant livelihood ramifications; and billions would need to be spent to pollinate crops artificially," says a Whitley Awards statement sent to www.freshfruitportal.com.
"One of every three bites of food we eat is dependent on pollinators. These tiny insects, bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and beetles, play a critical role in crop pollination.
"The award is given in recognition of Dr. Martin’s work with local communities to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators, and encourage the adoption of more sustainable farming practices that conserve pollinators, boost crop yields, and benefit people and livelihoods in East Africa."
The Whitley Gold Award will enable Dr. Martins to expand his conservation efforts to a new level by working with 4,000 additional farmers; tackling the importation, use and spread of unregistered pesticides entering Africa and; educating 200,000 people about the importance of pollinators and sustainable agriculture.
Dr. Martins holds a PhD from Harvard University, is Chair of the Insect Committee of Nature Kenya, Technical Advisor to the UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO), and has recently been appointed to the Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).