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For the Love of Honey

By Zach Fuller and Jeff Kerby

Honeybees are famously in trouble, but not all 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?

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. Read all about the beginning of our journey.

Honey Bees are just one of the many species of bees that produce honey. Viruses and other pathogens threaten species such as stingless bees as well. (Photo by Jeff Kerby)

Honey Bees are just one of many bee species important for pollination. Stingless bees, some 500 odd species of them, provide valuable pollination services for crops in tropical and neo-tropical areas, and produce distinctive honey that is used in traditional medicines.

“Pure oil!” our driver, Fredrick, gasped as the honey dripped from the top of the hive box. In front of us, local farmer Stanley Imbusi slid a knife between the aged wood and the globular honey-filled sacs that hung down from its lid. Bees filled the room, but Stanley smiled and swatted them away. These were stingless bees, evolutionary relatives of the honeybee, but much smaller and less commonly cultivated. Stanley is an expert on these species in Kenya, though we may have missed his research center were it not for a tip from our colleague Dr. Mary Gikungu at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

Stanley Imbusi is called the “stingless bee expert” of Kenya and has converted his personal farm into a research center. He has kept colonies of various species at the farm continuously since 1994. (Photo by Jeff Kerby)

Like many farmers in Kenya, beekeeping is a tradition in Stanley’s family, a skill he first learned from his grandfather. He started his pioneer colonies in 1994 using a modified Langsroth Hive design. More than 20 years later, many of these original hives are still in use.

Stanley focuses on three species of stingless bees at his apiary and research center: Meliponula bocandei, Meliponula ferruginea and Hypotrigona gribodoi. All three vary in size and shape, with H. gribodoi appearing barely larger than the fruit flies (Drosophila) that I studied in the lab back at Penn State.

The honey produced by several species of stingless bees is regarded as a traditional medicine by locals in the Kakamega region. It can take around 8 months for a single hive to build up enough honey for harvest. (Photo by Jeff Kerby)

When it came time to harvest honey, Stanley cited sentimental reasons when picking one of his original M. bocandei colonies. Most of the workers were out foraging, so he simply pried off the top board as honey began dripping everywhere. Inside was a lesson in organization—the brood where new eggs are laid sat near the entrance followed by stores of bright orange pollen gathered by the foragers.

As we tasted the tartly sweet pollen grains, Stanley informed us that traditional beliefs tie this food to healthy teeth and gums. Most of the honey was located in globular balls near the rear third of the hive. A quick flick of a knife saw large sections of beeswax and honey fall into a bowl to be filtered into pure honey (or “pure oil!” as our driver Fredrick called it).

From this hive, we collected slightly more than two and a half kilograms of tangy stingless bee honey, although some hives yield as many as four kilograms. Stanley can fetch almost $10 for half a kilogram of this much-sought-after honey, and uses his apiary as a major source of income, though it can take around eight months for a single hive to build up enough honey for harvest.

Stingless bees are an important source of pollination and honey production for farmers across Kenya and East Africa. (Photo by Jeff Kerby)

In Kenya, stingless bee honey is highly revered and holds a place of importance in traditional medicine and culture. Speaking with locals from Kakamega, we heard that this honey is used to treat ailments as wide ranging as asthma, burns, or even baldness (hardly an ailment!). Recent scientific research supports that there are some antimicrobial properties of stingless bee honey, though the jury is still out on its effectiveness as a hair growth stimulant.

After the honey harvest we spent a few hours collecting specimens from around Stanley’s apiary, and an important point became clear. We will leave Kenya with our collections and eventually write up the results in scientific publications, condensing a trip full of encounters like this into graphs and technical writing. For Stanley however, stingless bees are not just another data point, but a reflection of decades of trial, error, and ultimately deep understanding. They are a way of life.

For many local farmers, stingless bee honey is a primary source of income and a highly sought after commodity in markets. (Photo by Jeff Kerby)

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Zach Fuller is a National Geographic Young Explorer and a biologist at Columbia University.

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