Cell phones could be a lifeline for honey bees and beekeepers in Africa

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A new Penn State project aimed at improving the food system in East Africa by enhancing pollination services and promoting bee-derived products has received a Food Systems Innovation Grant from the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, based at Michigan State University.

The long-term goal of the two-year project is to create an information-gathering and decision-support system that combines global positioning systems, geographic information systems and cell phone technologies to translate field data into reliable, evidence-based management recommendations for smallholder farmers. Researchers will test the effectiveness of this approach by applying it to the management of honey bees, said lead investigator Maryann Frazier, senior extension associate in entomology, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

"The honey bee is an important native pollinator and income-generator in East Africa and is well known as a key pollinating species throughout most of the world," she said. "However, in Africa, little work has been done to understand its role in agro- or natural ecosystems or what improvements might be attained through enhanced pollination services. In addition, honey bees provide income and an important source of calories for thousands of rural East Africans."

Frazier noted that the project builds on six years of collaborative research between Penn State (including its Center for Pollinator Research and Center for Chemical Ecology), Kenya's International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology, and, more recently, South Eastern Kenya University.

"In our earlier work, 29 beekeepers surveyed at 14 locations across Kenya all confirmed that they are unable to meet the local demand for honey through their current production," Frazier said. "In addition, beeswax, a by-product of honey production, traditionally has been discarded by East African beekeepers. But pesticide-free beeswax is now in great demand on the international market and could provide added income for African communities."

In the initial phase of the project, hives owned by beekeepers and placed into the local environment to capture migratory honey bee swarms will be mapped using their GPS coordinates. Research team member Patrick Kariuki, of South Eastern Kenya University, will use GIS and other satellite imagery to map the landscape, including native plant and crop coverage, and will monitor climatic conditions within the foraging range of hives.

Using cell phone text messaging, participating beekeepers will submit honey bee population data, such as timing, location and size of the swarms colonizing the hives. They also will provide information about their management practices and honey and wax production.

Eric Lonsdorf, visiting assistant professor of biology, Franklin and Marshall College, then will use a sophisticated model to correlate the landscape data with the information submitted by the beekeepers. The combined data will be used to characterize the best management strategies to maximize hive occupation and honey and wax production. Resulting recommendations will be shared with beekeepers via cell phone.

"Once we have demonstrated the reliability of our methods, we will scale up this approach to determine if increased pollination by honey bees can improve yields of nutrient-rich food crops such as beans, cowpeas, pigeon peas and fruits," Frazier said. "Such increases in yields potentially could offset crop reductions due to drought and/or climate change."

In addition, long-term monitoring of migratory honey bee populations also could provide useful information about the changing climate and its impacts on native plants and ecosystems in Africa, according to co-principal investigator Harland Patch, research scientist in entomology, Penn State.

Other members of the research team include Christina Grozinger, professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research, Penn State, and Elliud Muli and Benjimin Muli, of South Eastern Kenya University.

The Global Center for Food Systems Innovation is a consortium led by Michigan State University in partnership with Wageningen University, The Netherlands; The Energy and Resources Institute, India; and Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. One of eight development labs funded by the USAID Global Development Lab under the Higher Education Solutions Network, the center's goal is to create, test and enable the scaling of innovations in the food system, using an approach that is multi-disciplinary, focused on the entire food system and forward-looking.


Last Updated January 11, 2016