This Is Where the Key to Healthy Honeybees May Be Found

By Zach Fuller and Jeff Kerby 

The relationship between honeybees and humans spans millennia, from the advent of agriculture to the current globalization of food markets. Today, pollination via commercial hives supports a multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.

But honeybee health in the U.S. and Europe has never been more precarious.

Misuse of pesticides, diverse hive pests, parasites, disease, and climate change are among the threats they face in these locations. (See “What We Know—and Don’t Know—About Honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder”)

Yet not all honeybee populations are showing signs of stress. Hives in East Africa—where honeybees are critical pollinators for coffee, cacao, and cashews—seem more resilient than their American and European counterparts, even when faced with similar pathogens.

The buzzing question is, Why?

Honeybees in East Africa seem more resilient than those in Europe and the Americas. The buzzing question is, Why? Photo by Jeff Kerby

A Critical Element 

Rural farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia rely on wild pollinator populations or use traditional beekeeping methods that date back centuries, but this alone doesn’t explain disparities in bee health. In fact, the critical element in this investigation is one that remains little studied: genetics. (Find out how scientists and breeders are trying to create a hardier honeybee.)

The underlying genetic basis of disease resistance in East African bees may provide crucial insights into global pathogen outbreaks. In addition, genetic methods offer rare insight into the most difficult bee pathogens to study: viruses. Often spread by mites and other nest parasites, viral infections may amplify the effects of other pathogens or environmental disturbances like pesticides and climate change.

To further explore honeybee health in the region, we teamed up with local and international collaborators and set off for Kenya in the summer of 2015 to take the first step: collecting a diverse set of bees and bee viruses.

Our seven-part story from the field begins below.

Spreading branches of a tree in Kenya
Lake Naivasha contains some of the largest flower farms in the world, which depend heavily on pollination provided by honeybees and other species. It’s unknown if the region’s high-intensity agriculture and low plant diversity has an impact on the health of bee colonies. Photo by Jeff Kerby

All Along the Roadside

We’re driving toward Lake Naivasha, our first planned collection site, and as we descend from the outskirts of Nairobi and into the Great Rift Valley, it finally begins to feel like our field work is starting. The crowded roadside markets and cement buildings disappear and make way for sprawling brush landscapes dotted with sparse houses and farms. Our driver, Frederick, tells us he doesn’t often make it out to Lake Naivasha but enjoys the area when he does.

It’s easy to see why. As we drive around searching for a place to stay for the night we see several giraffes to our left and the waters of Lake Naivasha to our right. The sun is beginning to set behind the same clouds that brought rain showers earlier in the afternoon. It’s like something out of a movie.

Besides being picturesque, the area surrounding Lake Naivasha also looks like an excellent place to make our first collections and begin investigating the relationship between land use and bee health. Lining the main highway of Naivasha are several industrial flower farms, all requiring the pollination services bees provide. In fact, Kenya is the third largest exporter of flowers in the world, and nearly half of all farms in the country are located on the shores of Naivasha.

Because the floral industry is so valuable to the region, many of the farms have tight restrictions on who and what is allowed on their property. We try to get permission to sample directly from the farms, but many of the owners are understandably wary of our gear and equipment.

So we settle for collecting bees from wildflowers growing alongside nearby roadways. Since a honeybee can forage up to several kilometers away from its colony, we don’t expect our results to be any different than if we had collected them directly from a farm.

Ultimately, we manage to collect bees from three separate locations. We even collect foragers entering and exiting a colony on the grounds of our hotel. While it may not be the most exotic location, at least we can say we’ve successfully collected honeybees from Kenya.

Afterward, we drive about 12 miles back toward Nairobi and park near some open land. Seymon, a technician from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, thinks it looks like a good area to sample from—and he’s right. We come upon some flower bushes near a creek bed that prove to be a great area for collections. In the afternoon, we finish with a stop on the north side of Lake Naivasha, sampling some bees from more flower bushes a few hundred meters off the road.

Next up, we head about 180 miles west to Kisii County, where we meet a local beekeeper and find ourselves humbled by the bee collecting abilities of a novice.

Come back to follow the story.

Zach Fuller is a National Geographic Young Explorer and a biology Ph.D. student at Penn State University.

Jeff Kerby is a photographer, an ecologist at Dartmouth College, and a National Geographic Expeditions Council grantee.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Zach is postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University with a focus on population genetics and computational biology. He received his PhD from Penn State in 2017. He is a National Geographic Young Explorer grantee with field work based out of Kenya investigating adaptation in honey bees and other pollinator species. His work uses genomic techniques to understand how populations adapt and respond to recent environmental change.