How bees can be a friend to smallholders

By Karoline Kingston

Bee with pollen on its legs drinking nectar from a flower

In an unprecedented study, honey bees have been found to be the world’s most important single species pollinator in natural ecosystems. Working alongside wild bees, they are also said to be responsible for every one in three bites of food. For the smallholder farmer, befriending bees – both honey and wild – could mean more efficient, high quality pollination of crops, as well as pollinating wild plants for cattle and other livestock to graze on. The sale of honey could also provide a vital additional source of income. But the bees need human help in return; the global bee population is in decline due to the use of harmful pesticides, climate change and habitat loss. Finding a productive partnership between these small creatures and smallholders could benefit both sides.

How bees aid agriculture

Bees are said to be responsible for pollinating around 35% of global agricultural land. While smallholders work to prevent crop losses, bees can positively encourage crop pollination and productivity. They can also help with early detection of diseases such as fireblight in orchards. Research in Ghana and Benin has found that the presence of bees can even make nut trees more productive. Of course, in addition, their pollination of wild plants and animal food sources also helps cattle and livestock to thrive. Despite their tiny size, these creatures can make a large impact.

How smallholders can help in return

Farmers can repay the kindness shown by bees by monitoring the presence of other predators such as hornets, providing water for them to drink and allowing wild flowers to flourish where possible, as food for the bees. African bees have been found to be resistant to pathogens which have affected European bees, which makes them resilient and resourceful contributors. However, in order to preserve future bee numbers, farmers must seek to avoid the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on their smallholdings. An independent study of Plantwise found that farmers using plant clinics were less likely to use pesticides with a huge 97% decrease observed in the value of pesticides used per acre.

Contributing to the community

When bees and farmers work in partnership, the whole community benefits. In parts of Kenya, beehives have been valuable in improving the relationship between landowners and elephants, and the friendship between farmers and bees is also saving forests in Zimbabwe. If smallholders are encouraged to keep honey bees, there is an obvious income opportunity from selling their honey; for some, this can make a huge difference to the quality of life they can provide for their own families and farm workers.

Bees are small but mighty contributors to the world of agriculture. For smallholder farmers, bees are an inexpensive way to add real value to their land, by improving pollination, detecting disease and increasing fruitfulness. They can also make a significant contribution to the wider community. While the work continues to reduce losses, bees can help farmers to make real progress.

About the author

Karoline Kingston worked as a garden landscaper for many years before leaving to pursue her passion as a writer. She now spends more time at home with her family, in the garden or out hiking in the countryside.

20 May is World Bee Day, raising awareness of the importance of pollinators, the threats they face and their contribution to sustainable development.

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