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Bees bring honey and hope to a forest reserve in Nigeria

Image of a honeybee by Andrea Fabiani Ph via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Image of a honeybee by Andrea Fabiani Ph via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

  • Nigeria’s Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve boasts more plant species than any other montane forest in Nigeria.
  • The reserve is also home to a small population of endangered Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees.
  • However, human pressures have resulted in deforestation of portions of Ngel Nyaki.
  • An initiative hopes to safeguard and rehabilitate Ngel Nyaki’s habitat by training community members in beekeeping.

YELWA, Nigeria — Nightfall at the Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve field station is clad in the whispers, chirps and trills of insect song. Flames from the burning wood in the fire pit pierce the darkness as flashlights held by field assistants and patrollers reveal a river of fog flowing over the surrounding grassland and tree canopies. As night recedes, the early hours of dawn vanquishes the fog, revealing distant mountains, valleys and forest. Bees, butterflies and birds of all colors flit from flower to fruit, hive to nest.

Gazetted on April 24, 1969, the reserve comprises some 40 square kilometers of land. However, only about 7.2 sq km of that land was forested as of 2011, according to researchers.  Ngel Nyaki boasts a high level of biodiversity, including species threatened with extinction. Among the reserve’s denizens are the putty nose monkey (Cercopithecus nictitans), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), mona monkey (Cercopithecus mona), civet (Civettictis civetta), tantalus monkey (Chlorocebus tantalus), olive baboon (Papio anubis), Demidoff’s galago (Galagoides demidovii), duiker (Cephalophus silvicultor), red river hog (Potamochoerus porcus), African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), and colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza occidentalis).

Researchers believe a small population of Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti), the most endangered chimpanzee subspecies, may still inhabit Ngel Nyaki’s forests. Using nest counts, researchers estimated there were around 16 adult individuals living in the reserve as of 2012.

Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.
Researchers believe Ngel Nyaki’s forests still harbor endangered Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ellioti). Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Much like the rest of the region, the reserve is threatened by farming, grazing, hunting and logging. But the natural artistry of its terrain, with montane forests laced by shrubby grasslands and river valleys, dotted by waterfalls, caves and steep hillsides, also makes it a prized tourism destination.

To help protect its biodiversity, researchers and conservationists are turning to its namesake: bees.

Ngel Nyaki means “forest of bees” in the Fulfulde language, which is widely spoken by the Fulani ethnic group in West and Central Africa. There are more than a dozen bee species in Ngel Nyaki, according to a 2023 study, published in the Asian Journal of Research in Agriculture and Forestry. Its authors noted the presence of stingless bees (Meliponula beccarii), bumble bees (Bombus sp.), carpenter bees (Xylocopa augusti), squash bees (Penonapis sp.), violet bees (Xylocopa violacea), memic bees (Megachile sp.), and mining bees (Andrena cineraria) in the area.

But the most abundant species, accounting for over 40 percent of the study’s 575 sampled bees, is the western honey bee (Apis mellifera). The species is widespread worldwide, but genomic research suggests it is native to Africa.

In and around Ngel Nyaki, the western honeybee is the backbone of the local honey industry, providing a major source of income for communities within and near the reserve. The forest also provides a bevy of other natural resources, from herbal remedies and thatching grass to fresh water and wild fruit.

In the nearby village of Yelwa, Monday Zacchaeus prepares for a routine beehive check. With an arrow at hand, an empty hive box on his head and a sheathed dagger strapped to his waist, he treks to the base of a mountain at the outskirts of the village where he had mounted around a dozen hives some weeks earlier.

“Beekeeping in Ngel Nyaki started in the time of our forefathers. We inherited this from our forefathers. We are also trusting that our own children will follow this same step.” Zaccheaus told Mongabay. “But to keep this profession, we have to defend the forest because if the forest of Ngel Nyaki is destroyed, the bees will no longer be here.”

While habitat still remains, Ngel Nyaki has been affected by deforestation. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.
While habitat still remains, Ngel Nyaki has been affected by deforestation. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

In 2005, after years of tenuous protection, Ngel Nyaki became the launch pad for the Nigerian Montane Forest Project (NMFP), a conservation project spearheaded by the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, which aims to blend education with protection, research and community forest management. Hazel Chapman, professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Canterbury and founder and executive director of NMFP, co-directs the project with University of Gombe professor Danladi Umar.

“We knew the connection between the people and the forest,”  Umar told Mongabay. “If they are going to be kept out of the forest, they need alternative livelihood that doesn’t tamper with the forest. The first thing was to enlighten them. The second was to equip them with skills that would keep them busy and productive outside the forest. Thirdly, we fully involved them in conservation activities.”

Umar and others interviewed by Mongabay said that although the project initially invested in a wide range of skill-upscaling training and workshops to support community members who had been largely reliant on farming and grazing, beekeeping soon won out. Gradually, hundreds of locals were trained in the art of apiculture.

Before NMFP, beekeepers commonly harvested honey by setting fire to bee hives with cow dung or firewood, often killing the bees and the trees harboring them. Today, they have been trained to use handheld smokers, which briefly dispel the bees during honey tapping. This way, millions of bees survive to make more honey while providing other crucial ecosystem services — namely pollination.

“Our people burned a lot of bees for years and centuries without knowing the consequences or damage. Our belief was that the bees would always be there,” Zaccheus said. “This training and workshop really opened our eyes. And we must avoid the mistakes of our forefathers.”

The harvesting cycle peaks in March, when households spend long nights squashing honeycomb to extract the honey trapped within. Now, however, a newly introduced method uses a stainless steel extraction machine, which reduces the chances of contamination from unclean hands, sieves or dishes used in manual processing. Locals also now have access to safer, sting-proof suits.

NMFP has also introduced updated hive designs. Instead of farming bees in holes in the ground or trees, locals have learned to construct moveable beehives. Whereas nests in old hives were vulnerable to attacks from predators, as well as flooding, the new moveable hives are more effectively sealed to help safeguard bees and honey and can be relocated.

After the training, Zaccheaus was quickly able to expand his honey operation from 10 hives to more than 40 in less than one year. He told Mongabay that some fellow farmers in neighboring communities, acting on their new skills and strategy, have added more than one hundred hives to their farms, a milestone he hopes to meet in the next year.

Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.
Cattle grazing is one of the main drivers of forest loss in Ngel Nyaki. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

However, while  Zaccheaus has been able to invest in his ambitions, cost is still a barrier to entry for others. Beehives, bee suits, smokers and extractor machines are huge luxuries for many Ngel Nyaki families who struggle to make ends meet.

Throughout the region, vestiges of poverty abound, a stark reminder of Nigeria’s spot as the Africa’s poverty capital, and only second to India globally. Analysis by the World Bank found more than half of Nigerians were living in extreme poverty in 2020. The country’s inflation rate hit 25.8% in September — the highest in nearly two decades.

“The [training of] skills are adequate. There are private success stories from this initiative,” Umar said. “But when we get large funding to reach poorer locals, the Ngel Nyaki honey boom would be more massive.”

The value of bees doesn’t lie solely in honey production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FOA) estimates that around half of the world’s total crop production and 87 of the 115 leading food crops globally depend on pollination by bees.

NMFP field assistants collect flowers from plants visited by bees and other pollinators. They then analyze them microscopically.

“Our pollination studies are important to the communities around us and to the worldwide science community,” Gabriel said.  “Our recommendations can help locals to predict when to plant and how to plant native trees or crops for improved productivity and livelihood.”

In addition to pollinating food crops for smallholder farmers, researchers told Mongabay that Ngel Nyaki’s bees hold the fate for the survival of many plant species in the reserve, several of which are threatened with extinction.

According to the University of Canterbury, Ngel Nyaki boasts more plant species than any other montane forest in Nigeria. Researchers also regularly discover new animal species in the reserve, such as the previously unknown problem squeaker frog (Arthroleptis palava), which was described in Herpetologica in 2010.

Arthroleptis palava. Image by Václav Gvoždík via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
A problem squeaker frog (Arthroleptis palava). Image by Václav Gvoždík via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

“The joy of researching at Ngel Nyaki is that you have the opportunity to see biodiversity at its best,” NMFP science coordinator Dabo Gabriel told Mongabay. “You have the opportunity to see new species every single day within the reserve. You don’t know what to expect when you go to the field. Ngel Nyaki challenges you to do more because there is just so much to understand about the forest and there is so much to learn.”

In 2014, Ngel Nyaki became only the fifth location in Africa to be selected as a Centre for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS), where the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute will conduct climate research and study tropical and temperate forest functions and biodiversity.

To foster a deep connection between local people and conservation, the NMFP project launch in 2005 was marked by widespread consultation with local communities, Umar said. In addition, more than 80% of NMFP staff are members of communities within or near the reserve, including Yelwa, Mayo Nyebe, Ndombo Gishi, Gidan Musa, Panso, Mai Wuye,  Dujere, Zongo and Nguroje.

Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.
The NMFP project has attracted funding for local schools, according to community members interviewed by Mongabay. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Aside from patrollers, who are paid by the Taraba state government, the NMFP project employs local community members in other roles, such as forest monitors, field assistants and guides.

One such man is Zubairu Misa, an Indigenous resident of Yelwa village, who has now risen to the role of project manager after beginning as a field assistant 18 years ago.

“We have a lot of endangered species here that are not found everywhere except here. We conserve this because of our future generation,” Misa told Mongabay. “Also, it is for this forest that our names  and pictures have gone far in the world.”

According to interviews with local residents, the NMFP project has also attracted funding for infrastructure and social development near Ngel Nyaki, including the construction of a well, support of a local maternity hospital and the provision of materials and teachers to local schools.

“Our people have seen the benefits of this project,” Misa said. “It is up to us to defend it.”


Banner image of a honeybee by Andrea Fabiani Ph via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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