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.
Our second stop was in the rich, tea-producing highlands near Kisii. After four days of scorched travel through Naivasha and Nairobi, we were looking forward to greener landscapes.
We arrived at the town square in an absolute downpour. We met Brian Ash, a friend of a friend, through a cracked window as he sat on his sputtering Yamaha in the rain. He spoke rapid-fire Swahili with our driver, Frederick, and then was off, leading us down narrowing side roads that increasingly resembled river ways. Eventually, we pulled into a final narrow drive as the rain slowly cleared and found ourselves at our unexpected home for the next few days: Arrive, a refuge, school, and second chance for some of Kisii’s most down-and-out kids.
Brian founded Arrive several years ago to create a community for kids that were caught in a bleak cycle of poverty, disease, and addiction. This oasis is embedded in a larger community in the highlands, one defined by local markets and a deep reliance on the land. We spent the next couple of days scouring the area for bees to sample, but also spending time with and learning from the kids and neighboring farmers.
One neighbor, Peter, lit up when we mentioned our interest in bees. His family has kept honey bees for generations. In fact, he said, he was in the midst of expanding his efforts towards a greater honey harvest with a new strategy—repurposing old Coca-Cola crates to frame new hive boxes. He took us to see the four he had already set up, and spoke of plans to make hundreds more. As we journeyed across sloped and terraced fields, we met many curious and interested farmers. We asked one man if we could sample from his sunflower field, and after watching us jump around with our nets for a few minutes, he countered that perhaps he could give it a try. After setting a new standard in capture efficiency, he laughed and said he was too busy with his farm work to become our main bee catcher for the next couple weeks, but still took time to show us a natural hive tucked into a dirt mound on the edge of his field.
Our collections in Kisii focused on gathering bee genetic material, but our conversations with farmers and the community around Arrive underscored the importance of local production for this region. Honey, produce, and livestock are all locally sourced, and the economy is entirely reliant on and in tune with these resources. The kids at Arrive learn about these relevant life skills while also getting a more traditional education—leaving them prepared for life after they’ve graduated.
In Kisii, beekeeping is not a hobby. It is an important pillar of the community, not just for the valuable honey it produces, but also the role that bees play in the ecosystem—a role whose function and dynamics are keenly felt by everyone in the region.
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.