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Why Livestock Bill was a sting to small beekeepers

Beehives belonging to Kapkuikui Primary School in Baringo south. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Last May, the Livestock Bill 2021 was presented at the National Assembly for debate to much criticism. Part 14 of the Bill – addressing beekeeping and bee products – was the cause of outrage from stakeholders.

“A person shall not keep bees for commercial purposes except in an apiary registered under this Act.”

But National Assembly Leader of Majority Amos Kimunya has since withdrawn the Bill from being read in the House to pave way for further consultations. But why did the Bill cause an uproar?

“Who is a commercial beekeeper?” asks Pauline Otila, referring to the Bill. “It is not clear if the criteria is based on the number of hives, the type of hives, the size of the land on which the hives are placed.”

Otila argues that the majority of honey producers are small-scale farmers with few (some as few as one) hives. The Bill, she suspects, was designed to edge out such players in the industry.

James Njuguna, a beekeeper and a conservationist, believes the Bill was aimed at kicking out small players “to allow a big player to take over the industry.”

Branded hives at a cost

The Bill had other contentious parts. It stated that ‘registration’ would be renewed annually – alluding to the possibility of regular licensing fees. Hives would be branded with a registered brand; and fees charged on such registration.

And, hives would have to be prescribed by authorities: beekeepers would no longer be able to choose the type, style or form of beehives. The Smart Harvest delved into the Bill and talked to farmers, scientists and policymakers. Many agree that the Bill was flawed.

Inability to produce food

If all bees in the world died humanity would struggle to meet its nutritional needs, says Dr Faith Toroitich, an entomologist at Egerton University.

She notes that flowering crops propagate and produce because of pollination. Agents of pollination include wind, birds, mammals and insects.

“However, the number one pollinator world over is the honey bee,” she says. “They are responsible for at least 80 per cent of pollination.”

This is because unlike other biological pollinators, bees wholly depend on flowers for food. In other words, they have to visit flowers to survive.

Cross-pollinate plants

“As they move from one flower to another they cross-pollinate plants. It is part of nature’s design: bees pollinate as they look for food,” Toroitich says.

Fredrick Otieno, a beekeeper and chairperson of the Apiculture Platform of Kenya (APK), says the Bill as it was would demoralise beekeepers and force them to halt beekeeping activities.

“Things such as registration fees and annual renewal of licenses as well as the costs of registering and maintaining bee brands will push us out.

“And if that happened there would be fewer bee colonies to forage and pollinate crops,” Otieno says.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75 per cent of farmed crops are flowering plants – they yield seeds and/or fruits. They depend on pollination to produce and propagate.

Registration fees

Justin Chebii, the chairman of Baringo Beekeepers and Honey Producers Association, also believes the Bill was designed to kick out small players.

“Baringo honey is sought after: it is acacia honey. But most of us beekeepers are using traditional log hives,” he says.

Chebii himself has over 40 log hives in the Lake Bogoria catchment.

The Bill says beekeepers will use hives prescribed by authorities. Chebii fears that the log hives – which most of his association members use – will be banished as unsuitable and therefore kick many of them out.

“Log hives and other traditional hives work very well in the wild. What happens when authorities tell us to bring them down?” he says.

Registration fees and licences will also discourage the common man from beekeeping, he adds.

James Muriuki is the head of Apiculture and Emerging Livestock at the State Department for Livestock, at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives (MoALFC).

While Kenya has no baseline survey on beekeeping, Muriuki acknowledges that it is mostly done by smallholder farmers “looking for a little extra income.”

Muriuki argues that the Livestock Bill 2021 was meant to curb the fake honey epidemic that many Nairobians are all too familiar with.

“Regulations will ensure that only bee-produced honey is available in the market,” he says.

But opponents, fear that the opposite will happen.

“With fewer beekeepers, actual organic honey will be too expensive. This will cause the backstreet market for fake honey to thrive,” Chebii says.

Lowered agricultural earnings

Crops such as passion fruit, pumpkin, watermelon, okra and strawberries that are wholly dependent on pollinators will be affected. Fruits develop from flowers that have been pollinated. Flowers that are not pollinated drop off and hence lowering production for an orchard farmer.

As the debate rages, there are some farmers who have integrated beekeeping with crop production and results are evident.

In 2017, Isinya Roses company diversified to grow avocado and blueberries – integrated with beekeeping.

Shankar Rajendran, the manager, says the company wanted to utilise the symbiotic relationship bees have with fruit trees.

Beekeeping, he says, is especially critical and important to avocados because of the flowering behaviour of the plant.

“Avocado flowers behave abnormally. Some varieties open their flowers in the morning as a female (only with female parts). It then closes at about midday. It reopens in the afternoon of the next day, but as a male. In other varieties, it is the other way round,” Rajendran said.

For this reason, most avocado orchards will have two or more varieties. Isinya Roses grows Hass and Fuerte varieties: so that when one has opened female flowers the other has opened male flowers.

Avocados don’t self-pollinate. They depend, almost entirely, on bees for pollination: thus increasing yield.

“Having bees in the avocado orchard increases production of the fruits by about 15 per cent. And you harvest honey too,” Rajendran says.

Annual registration, licensing fees and restrictions on land for beekeeping will discourage farmers from integrating beekeeping and fruit farming; hence denying them maximum production potential.

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