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An army of bees takes on deforestation in Tanzania

The forests of Tanzania are under attack from armed, illegal logging gangs and charcoal extraction. But the battle against deforestation has a helpful ally: the bee. Though it could soon be facing a fight of its own.

Thousands of drones buzz over the plains of Tanzania, each surveying its environment through thousands of tiny lenses. The male bees may not come with the high-tech gadgetry of their robotic namesakes currently deployed to monitor deforestation - but they are proving to be a useful conservation ally in the country's central Singida region.

The unassuming insects have their work cut out for them. For the past two decades, Tanzania has been losing forest cover at a rate of 400,000 hectares a year. According to the #link:http://www.fao.org/forestry/fra/fra2010/en/.:United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's# most recent Global Forests Resources Assessment, this has resulted in biodiversity loss and soil erosion.

In a region where poverty is widespread and there are few ways to make money, locals resort to cutting down trees for charcoal production. According to Jimi Akindele - co-founder of the Tanzania-based beekeeping social venture Tanganyika Apicultural - this trade accounts for more than half of all household income in much of the African country. It's even become organized - with armed, illegal loggers stripping the forests of its precious resource.

Rural, organic beekeeping could provide a financially appealing alternative for those who would otherwise earn cash through logging. That, at least, is the hope.

Empowering women

Women sit together

Beekeeping is helping to empower women

Located in Singida, one of the nation's major beekeeping regions, #link:http://tanganyikaapicultural.com/ :Tanganyika Apicultural# works mainly with female-led cooperatives. The organization currently supports 326 women's groups, providing them with access to microcredit, more modern technologies and methods - and, importantly, to lucrative markets. Its focus on women isn't a coincidence, says Akindele, who is also a lawyer.

"I thought that getting the women on board would be a brilliant result, because they were so limited in their economic opportunities," he told Global Ideas.

In a country where women have an average of six children, Philemon Kiemi - a Tanzanian beekeeper and entrepreneur who co-founded Tanganyika Apicultural in 2014 - added that "women in rural areas are more sensitive in the handling of their families than men, so if you work and support the women, you are supporting their families too."

Old traditions with a modern twist

Beekeeping has been a feature of Tanzania's agriculture for thousands of years. Agricultural production was at its height during the colonial era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Germany ruled over a swathe of land that included the present-day country.

Bienen in Tansania

Creating the right kind of hives is essential to good beekeeping

The practice is still widespread, with two million rural Tanzanians estimated to be employed in the production of beeswax and honey. But #link:https://www.worldhumanitariansummit.org/fr/file/453851/download/494248:99 percent of total honey production in the country# is still carried out using traditional - and less sustainable - beekeeping methods.

Traditional techniques involve making a hive out of a hollowed log or tree bark. Once colonized, it is then opened up, and the honeycomb is harvested. Although it is a cheap method, it means the hives can only be harvested once, because it involves destroying the colony. And that's not the only problem.

"It's very labor-intensive, and requires climbing a tree and going deep into the forest, which can be a laborious practice for women," Akindele said, adding that the introduction of more modern beekeeping technology enables them to increase their income by helping them "engage with sustainable beekeeping in ways that don't take so much time and effort."

Bees under threat

Tanganyika Apicultural aren't the only ones promoting beekeeping as an incentive to conserve the forest. The Tanzanian government as well as local and international NGOs, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), have been highlighting its ecological and financial benefits in a bid to halt deforestation. Beekeeping projects are also gaining a foothold in other African countries, including Kenya.

#link:http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/13/us-tanzania-logging-idUSKBN0KM00720150113:Tanzanian authorities complained earlier this year# about a surge in illegal logging, which has seen hundreds of tons of trees smuggled out of forests in the country's coastal Rufiji district.

The situation has become so dire that it has pushed some indigenous tree species - such as the mninga - to the brink of local extinction.

Bees at work

Busy, busy, busy - not just the bees, but also the women who keep them

Beekeepers are suffering too due to the removal of flowering plants upon which the insects feed. And another danger looming on the horizon for Tanzania’s beekeepers is the varroa mite.

Having already decimated European honeybee populations, the parasite has recently reached Tanzania. Research published in the #link:http://www.entomoljournal.com/vol2Issue3/pdf/5.1.pdf:Journal of Entomology and Zoology Studies# in 2014 found 48 percent of 175 inspected honeybee colonies in Tanzania were infected with mites. But Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, a bee expert and professor at the University of Würzburg in Germany, says Tanzanian honeybees may be made of sturdier stuff than their European counterparts.

"There are other studies indicating that the East African honeybee popultions are more resistant than the European ones," he said. "But this needs to be studied in more detail."

Bees have been praised by the Tanzanian government for playing a major role in improving biodiversity and increasing crop yields through pollination. Yet Steffan-Dewenter also points out the difficulty in quantifying the effect of a given number of bees on local biodiversity.

At any rate, collaboration between scientists, conservation groups and regional authorities is key. In that regard, the exceptional teamwork of bees provides an excellent role model. As Kiemi says, "You can't work alone and succeed."

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