ICIPE seeks to tame bee diseases with training

Over 40 bee keeps from 26 English speaking countries in Africa have received training aimed at increasing awareness, prevention and control of bee pests and diseases, at a time when the pollinator insects’ survival is threatened by most chemical pesticides used in modern farming.

The one week training was conducted by scientists at African Insect Science for Food and Health (ICIPE). The programme which is funded by the European Union aimed at training trainers who will pass on their knowledge to other farmers in the region to help safe guard the endangered but vital insect. 

It is estimated by researchers in the agricultural sector that seventy-one out of the top 100 major food crops, supplying about 90 percent of the world's food, are pollinated by bees. In recent years, especially in Europe and North America, there has been a severe decline in the population of honeybees, which in large-scale agriculture are typically transported across regions according to the seasons, to pollinate crops.

According to Professor Suresh Rainah, the lead scientist for icipe’s Commercial Insects Programme, the exact cause of this relatively new disease, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), remains elusive. But it is widely accepted that no one factor is solely responsible. She explained that honeybee declines are likely linked to a variety of causes, including pests such as varroa mites, exposure to pesticides as well as the possible stress caused by bees being transported thousands of miles to provide pollination services.

The training entailed bee biology, pests and diseases of bees, monitoring and surveillance for threats to bee health, and rapid detection and reporting of bee diseases for better safeguarding of bee health across local and national boundaries.

The training was also aimed at increasing knowledge on the diseases, life cycle and patterns of the insect which researchers noted that is still widely unknown in the continent. In addition, systems for reporting bee diseases to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), are weak, since links between beekeepers and animal health authorities are weak. “You cannot manage what you don’t measure, and indeed these are the first steps in raising defenses against Colony Collapse Disorder in African honeybee populations before the disease has even appeared on the continent,” said Suresh.

The scientists also aim to map out the health status of African bees using GIS technology. “We shall eventually map African species and their genetic traits, so that bees’ health can be protected – and thus protect the livelihoods and food security of hundreds of millions of resource-poor farmers in Africa who depend on domestic bees for honey and other bee products as well as on mostly wild pollinators to grow their crops,” Raina explained.

Bee’s vital role in pollination is highlighted through a 2008 study by French and German researchers, who estimate the insects’ contribution to the production of crops used directly for human food at about $210 billion  globally, equivalent to 9.5 percent of the total value of agricultural output for producing food for humans. A second similar training is planned for June 2014 for francophone countries.