Zimbabwe’s bees are being saved from extinction by an innovative new project

Bees have been struggling to survive in Zimbabwe - but this radical sanctuary programme could be the answer.

Zimbabwe’s bees are being saved from extinction by an innovative new project
Selassie Sithole, aged 10, harvests honey at the bee sanctuary and pays his own fees and stationery costs from the proceeds.   –   Copyright  Ishmael Sithole

Climate change, pesticides, habitat loss and poor bee colony management are pushing Zimbabwe’s honey bees to extinction.

The species provides nutrition and income directly to more than 50,000 beekeepers across the country. Many small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe are turning to beekeeping to offset crop losses from recurrent droughts.

At the same time, through pollination, bees benefit human nutrition by enabling not only the production of abundance of fruits, nuts and seeds, but also more variety and better quality, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

And last year, José Graziano da Silva, then FAO director-general, warned that bees were under great threat from the combined effects of climate change, intensive agriculture, pesticides use, biodiversity loss and pollution.

But two professional bee keepers—Ishmael Sithole and Willet Mutisi— are on a mission to save Zimbabwe’s bees from extinction.

A SANCTUARY FOR BEES

The two beekeepers recently established a bee sanctuary on the foot of a mountain on the outskirts of Dangamvura, a high density suburb in the city of Mutare, eastern Zimbabwe.

The bee hives are set under acacia trees on a secluded spot of the southern slop of the mountain, giving the bees an opportunity to visit and collect pollen, nectar and offering free pollination services to surrounding areas.

Ishmael Sithole
Beehives at the sanctuary, the acacia trees provide shade, nectar and pollen. The bees pollinate the flowers and protect the trees from firewood poachers. Ishmael Sithole

Simultaneously, the bees safeguard the acacia and few other remaining trees from marauding firewood poachers. African bees are defensive in nature and whenever trees or grasses are cut within 10 metre radius from their nests or hives, they attack the intruder.

“We are sheltering bees and providing them with standard hives to live in, locating the hives in close proximity for easy of colony management,” says Sithole, founder and owner of MacJohnson Apiaries Private Business Corporation.

“We locate apiaries in areas which do not heavily rely on usage of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture to minimise chemical and pesticide poisoning of bees”.

This, Sithole explains, assists them in providing the market with honey which is free from chemical and pesticide residues.

“When hives are used for pollination of fruit tree plantations, we install bee confinement compartments on the hives during spraying regimes,” he adds.

Despite having apiaries in Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani and Chipinge districts, in Mutare the pair of beekeepers erected a sanctuary – in essence, a place of refuge for bees.

“One naturally will ask refuge from what? Well, before Mutare became a city which is expanding, it used to be a forest and wild creatures, bees included, used to crawl, walk or fly as will. As land was cleared for habitation, recreation and industry, bees lost their natural habitation in tree hollows, anthills and other natural nesting sites,” Sithole explains.

Ishmael Sithole
A natural bee nest destroyed by a recent bush fire in Dangamvura Mountain. Bees at the sanctuary survived the bush fire.Ishmael Sithole

Sithole says it was clear that the plight of bees was not factored in when Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) were being conducted and it’s sadly still the case.

“Resultantly, bees were and are left with limited options save for occupying idle chimneys, ceilings and other places where oftentimes they are not welcome,” he says.

He explains that the human-bee conflict often resulted in entire bee colonies being exterminated by toxic chemicals leading to a massive decline of the country’s local bee bank.

“We couldn’t fold our arms and watch this environmental injustice continue to unfold before our eyes. We decided to erect a bee sanctuary as a mitigation measure against environmental injustice of such a magnitude,” Sithole says.

A PLACE FOR ‘APITOURISM’

The bee sanctuary is also a place of practical training on colony management as well as a centre for apitourism, a form of ecotourism.

Though still in its infancy and constrained by lack of resources, apitourism has all the markings of a great spot to visit with the passage of time.

“Over and above this, it’s a source of fresh local honey and other hive products. We offer swarm removal services in and around Mutare and relocate the colonies to the bee sanctuary,” he says.

Ishmael Sithole
Selassie Sithole, aged 10, harvests honey at the bee sanctuary and pays his own fees and stationery costs from the proceeds.Ishmael Sithole

And Mutare residents who for years have been watching the Dangamvura Mountain being stripped bare of trees by firewood poachers are fully behind the bee sanctuary.

“These bees will deter people from cutting trees from this mountain. It’s good for us and it’s good for the trees,” Stephen Samanga explains.

Another resident, Joe Nyandoro says though the ecotourism project was still in its infancy, it would give children particularly from nearby schools to learn and understand bees in their natural habitat.

“I hope this unique project will succeed and be replicated in other parts of the country,” Nyandoro adds.

Ishmael Sithole
Propolis, beeswax, romantic beeswax candles, liquid honey and honey combs from the bee sanctuary project.Ishmael Sithole

Across the country bees remain critical for farmers. For plants which require pollination, Sithole explains, two major pollination agents exist: wind and insects.

Maize, is a staple part of the Zimbabwean diet, and, though it is mainly wind-pollinated, he says bees play a vital role it its pollination by shaking the tassels as they collect the pollen.

He explains although bees are valued by many people for the honey they produce, their major contribution to enriching plant and animal life —human beings included— is in the pollination services which they provide. Bees are therefore the number one insect pollinator due to their flower fidelity resulting in increased yields qualitatively and quantitatively.

“A decline in bee population will resultantly contribute immensely to poor yields. Their role is vast yet misunderstood and underestimated,” Sithole adds.

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