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How pesticides risk wiping out bees in Kenya

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Insects such as bumblebees, honey bees and carpenter bees are small creatures that we often disregard.

They come in different hues, shapes and sizes distinctively of three body parts, chitinous exoskeletons, three pairs of jointed legs and two antennas.

Do not let their tininess deceive you as they pollinate flowers, provide food besides maintaining the ecosystem.

The six-legged animals face a bleak future though. In the foreseeable future, they could go extinct due to widespread deforestations, global warming and ever-expanding industrial agriculture.

A boom in the global population has increased demand for food items hence the proliferation of large-scale, intensive production of crops and animals that involve pesticides. Some of these insect killers are harmful to bees.

“The frequent use of herbicides to control weeds reduces the diversity of plants and impoverishes the food webs of the insects,” warns Heinrich Boll Stiftung in its 2020 Insect Atlas report.

This comes at a time when demand for pesticides among Kenya’s high-input farms is ever-growing.

In less than 20 years, the country’s spending on pesticides rose from Sh4 billion ($36 million) in 2000, to Sh13 billion ($114 million) in 2017.

Whereas 42 per cent of pesticide imports are from China, Europe accounts for 30 per cent of the market share.

“Studies on the impact of pesticides on African insect diversity are limited and geographically dispersed. One study in eastern Kenya found pesticide use was negatively related to pollinator abundance in fields,” the report notes.

Cumulatively, Kenyan authorities have approved 862 products for use in horticulture, 275 of which (32 per cent) are toxic or highly toxic to bees.

“In Europe, by contrast, 49 per cent of the pesticides classified as toxic or highly toxic have been withdrawn from the market or have been restricted to greenhouse use only, because they are toxic to bees,” the report notes.

While stringent restrictions are in place in western countries, Kenya lacks such measures.

Ecologists are particularly concerned of active ingredients classified as neonicotinoids, a pesticide group that includes imidacloprid and thiamethoxam commonly used to control thrips, aphids and whiteflies in Kenya haphazardly.

“Imidacloprid (developed by Bayer) is an ingredient in 42 products used in Kenya but is restricted to greenhouse applications only in Europe.

Thiamethoxam (from Syngenta) is present in 13 products in Kenya. Its registration has also been withdrawn from Europe.

It also notes that a lot of the seeds used in Kenya are pre-coated with neonicotinoids, affecting not only pollinators but also microbial and insect activity, which in turn affect soil fertility.

“The intensive use of neonicotinoids is evident in the residue levels in honey, pollen, surface water and sediments,” the report adds.

Bee-keeping in the country is predominantly done in the wild more than in European and North American countries.

“This makes it more difficult for farmers to replace bees lost due to pesticide use or for other reasons. Unless all pollinators are protected, food and livelihood security and critical biodiversity are in danger,” the report notes.

According to the Directorate of Livestock Production and the National Beekeeping Institute, Kenya’s average honey production is 25,000 metric tonnes per annum.

In 2018, research done by the University of Sydney found that 41 per cent of species are declining in population and one-third of all insects face extinction.

“While cautioning that the available evidence is relatively thin, the researchers estimated that total insect biomass is declining by 2.5 per cent a year,” the report adds.

Insects are disappearing mainly from cultivated lands and intensively used pasturelands, the report indicates.

“In just 300 years, between 1700 and 2007, the areas of arable land and pastureland both increased fivefold, with big expansions, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” it adds.

“Humans cleared forests, drained swamps, and converted steppes and savannah to field sand pastureland.”

For example, between 1980 and 2000, more than half of the new agricultural land in the tropics was created by clearing forests.

Precautionary measures

On its part, the Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts demand for farm products will increase by 60 per cent by 2050, exacerbating the problem.

“But these developments could be averted. If the developed world were to consume less meat and if agricultural products were no longer used as fuels, the pressure on the land areas could be reduced considerably,” the report indicates.

With most farmers unaware that some pesticides are toxic to pollinators and other insects, they do not adopt precautionary measures while using them.

“For example, they are unaware that spraying close to a river will allow runoff and spray-drift to enter the water; nor do they know that spraying when pollinators are active will expose them to the pesticides.

“Such measures are often the preconditions for successful registration in Europe. But this information does not reach farmers in Kenya due to a lack of training, inadequate labelling and insufficient regulations,” it adds.

The spraying of locusts that invaded the country in 2019 using aircraft over vast tracts of land also did not augur well for the insects besides the soil, water and human health.

The active ingredients of these pesticides are malathion, which is highly toxic to fish and bees, and fenitrothion, which is toxic to bees and soil arthropods and is not approved for use in Europe.

“To safeguard their natural resources, biodiversity and food security, alternative mitigation strategies should be part and parcel of such preparations,” notes the report.