In the middle of a seven-acre woodlot of indigenous trees in Chemare, a village in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Charles Ng’ong’oni keeps 164 hollow-log beehives, which in good years bring him a healthy income by producing thousands of litres of honey.
Ng’ong’oni, 63, has managed the hives since the 1970s. But these days, he is being joined by a growing number of farmers in East Africa – and around the world – taking up beekeeping to broaden their income in the face of wilder weather, including heat, droughts and floods that can decimate crops.
But beekeeping, Kenyan experts say, is not proving as climate hardy as farmers had hoped.
Last year, amid widespread drought, Ng’ong’oni had almost nothing to sell after harvesting just 25 litres of honey, down from his usual average of 3,280 litres.
Ninety-six per cent of his beehives had no honey at all, he said, with the bees unable to find enough nectar from his parched trees and nearby fields.
“There were no flowers to feed on and most of the bees migrated to where they would find nectar. It was a terrible year for me,” Ng’ong’oni told Thomson Reuters Foundation at his farm in Kuresoi, Nakuru County, which this year has seen better rains.
Beekeeping is being widely introduced to communities in East Africa as an alternative way of making money as climate change brings harsher weather.
But Ng’ong’oni said even the bees are struggling to deal with drought and worsening heat extremes, despite his having planted a woodlot of trees to help provide nectar.
Benedict Wambua, a researcher at South Eastern Kenya University’s school of agriculture and veterinary sciences, found in a 2016 study that recurrent droughts were among the factors limiting the use of beekeeping as a climate coping strategy, largely because honey production fell in drought periods.
The area he and colleagues studied in Kitui County in eastern Kenya “showed a notable decline in productivity attributed to drought, deforestation and inefficiency” by farmers, the study said.
Philip Kisoyan, a programe officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Kenya, said he had also seen evidence of problems.
“Extreme climatic effects lead to low or postponed plant flowering time, reduces pollen and nectar availability, increases water stress, (and) inhibits movements and bee communications,” he said. “During the prolonged dry spell, bees migrate, leaving empty hives.”
Kenya’s bees are usually active from April to December, as plants flower. But last year, buzzing bees were a rare sight, Ng’ong’oni said.
“By March, we expect the rains to start falling but when it delays, then it rains for a month or two and stops, trees get shocked and don’t get to produce many flowers,” he said.