Bee research and development activities (since 1995)

Bee research and development activities were introduced at icipe in 1995. These efforts commenced with the inauguration of the Commercial Insects Programme at the Centre, aimed at developing sustainable apiculture and sericulture value chains as livelihood alternatives for rural communities in Africa, especially those living in fragile or natural resource-rich ecosystems.

icipe was aware that previous attempts by international and national players to establish such income-generating options had been constrained by lack of research and training. Therefore, specifically regarding  to bee activities, icipe aimed to ground its initiatives on a solid, basic sciences foundation focused on queen bee rearing and breeding; as well as control of diseases affecting honeybees. This knowledge would be supported by development and diffusion of modern beekeeping technologies, and capacity building of beekeepers. The Centre’s ultimate goal was to contribute to the production of high quality honeybee products, and their effective marketing so that benefits accrued more effectively for people.

In the first 10 years (since inception of the Commercial Insects Programme in 1995), icipe’s beekeeping activities were implemented across sub-Saharan Africa, and in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region in 19 countries including: Algeria, Botswana, Burundi, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Morocco, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Yemen, Zambia.

In the second decade (from 2005), icipe built on these efforts, while also strengthening bee health research. One of the key milestones during this period was the decision to set up the African Reference Laboratory for Bee Health at the Centre’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, with four bee health satellite stations in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Liberia. A collaborative initiative between icipe and the African Union Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resource (AU-IBAR), the facility was envisioned as a platform for a coordinated process for bee health in Africa, through research and development, policy advocacy, capacity building, and strategic networking. Funding was obtained from the European Union and icipe core funds. Construction started in 2013 and the facility was officially inaugurated in November 2014. Now endorsed as an OIE Collaborating Centre for Bee Health.

The establishment of a dedicated bee health amenity was based on several  factors, including:

  • Rising threats to bees in Africa, resulting from climate change and habitat loss due to deforestation caused by population pressures, among others.
  • Gaps in knowledge, and the absence of systematic procedures to monitor, analyse and safeguard bees.
  • Lack of proper approaches to incorporate bees into development strategies in Africa, as well as an inadequate understanding of their economic impact, especially regarding pollination services.
  • Growing global anxiety surrounding honeybee health against the background of the sudden decline in their populations (Colony collapse disorder (CCD)). The most likely contributors to CCD include Varroa mites; diseases (particularly through viruses vectored by Varroa); pesticide exposure; stresses associated with modern beekeeping practices; and poor nutrition.

Alongside, icipe advanced knowledge on honeybee health as outlined below:

  • Invasive bee pests in Africa (conducted in 2008), aimed to develop monitoring and control programmes.  In Kenya, the researchers discovered two related beetles, Oplostomus haroldi and O. fuligineus, to be the key pests of African honeybee colonies. The origin of the beetles was determined, in the event of these pests becoming threats to honeybee colonies of a different race outside Africa.
  • Explained the chemistry on the interaction between the two beetles and honeybees, developed a trapping system, and tested its performance in capturing the Africa-endemic small hive beetle, Aethina tumida, before expanding the tool to other species.
  • alternate hosts of the beetles, to understand factors that could contribute to the spread and distribution of the pests. These findings provided the basis for developing policy guidelines for the movement of honeybee colonies within and outside Kenya, to reduce the introduction of pollinator pests into new geographic and agricultural areas.
  • Contribution to tackling CCD: Showed that African honeybees in Africa are less vulnerable to brood diseases, parasites such as those transmitted by Varroa mites, and pests like the small hive beetle. In the United States, Africanised honeybees, many of which are hybridised crosses with European species, tolerate these maladies better, and do not often succumb to them.
  • Discovered Varroa mites for the first time in honeybee colonies in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania , and Cameroon.
  • These findings facilitated a new initiative between icipe and Penn State University, USA, to undertake outreach programmes to beekeepers in East Africa, towards sustainable honeybee management practices that are not dependent on pesticides and miticides.
  • Described occurrence of Varroa mites in honeybee colonies, and determined their pathogen loads, and documented the hygienic behaviour in honeybee colonies.
  • for the first time in Kenya, bacterial pathogens, in this case the genus Nosema, and viruses such as black queen cell virus. This knowledge, as well as skills to improve beekeeping practices was transferred to beekeepers.
  • In 2015, with funding from the European Union, icipe started bee health and pollination activities in various sites in Ethiopia including:Oromia Region, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region, and Tigray Region.

Over the past decade (from 2013), icipe has refined its activities through a Bee Research Strategy based on four major pillars: bee health; pollination; nutrition of bees; and microbiome research. Outcomes during this period are detailed below.

  • Continued to contribute knowledge on CCD. Building on previous observation, these studies have revealed a higher rate of grooming (hygienic behaviour) in African bees compared to European bees. Further, the Centre’s findings indicate that African bees can detect Varroa-infested brood cells, open them and remove the mites without harming the developing bee pupa.
  • Characterised the gut microbiota of the African honeybee and stingless bees, the ‘friendly bacteria’ that aid insect nutrition and defence against pathogens. The hope is that increased understanding of how gut microbiota influences the health of bees will lay a foundation for microbe-based strategies for bee health management. (Funding: Swiss National Science Foundation; British Council)
  • Mainstreamed R&D activities on the often overlooked, but vital role of honeybees in boosting agricultural productivity through pollination of crop and wild plants, and the provision of essential ecosystem services. icipe has conducted studies on pollinator nectar–microbe interactions, the pollination efficiency of various stingless bee species on horticultural crops, and on the effect of supplementation of farms with pollinators to close the pollination deficit.
  • Developed a new plant-based biofumigant and repellent for bee pests and diseases known as Apicure®. The product has been tested in small-scale field trials in various regions in Kenya, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Liberia and Burkina Faso, where it is effective in killing varroa mites and in repelling small hive beetles in bee colonies. icipe has made two patent applications in Kenya, and internationally.
  • Implemented activities that have led to the domestication of more than 15 African stingless bee species of economic importance. The Centre has established pilot rearing demonstration sites in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Tanzania. icipe has also conducted studies to understand improved hive technology and simple colony division; major pests and pathogens; habitat deterioration (including natural forest loss); reforestation and afforestation with exotic tree species negatively impacting the species richness and diversity of stingless bees in SSA.
  • Launched a pilot beekeeping project supported by Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, Switzerland, in Wag Himra Zone, Ethiopia. The goal is to draw lessons from the pilot phase to inform a planned beekeeping commercialisation cluster financed by the Government of Ethiopia in Tekeze valley, Amhara Region.
  • In 2016, the Centre, in partnership with Mastercard Foundation launched the Young Entrepreneurs in Silk and Honey (YESH) project, a five-year initiative aimed at benefitting unemployed and out-of-school youth in Ethiopia. By 2019, the YESH project had generated jobs for 12,500 young men and women in the country through honey and silk enterprises; established functional marketplaces for honey and beeswax and served as a platform for icipe to lead the development of a National Sericulture Development Strategy, at the request of the Ministry of Agriculture of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
  • In 2019, icipe and the Mastercard Foundation, in partnership with the Ethiopia Jobs Creation Commission launched the MOre Young Entrepreneurs in Silk and Honey (MOYESH) programme, a five-year initiative aimed towards enabling additional 100,000 young men and women in Ethiopia secure dignified and fulfilling direct employment along honey and silk value chains.
  • With the support of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has been implementing beekeeping activities as part of efforts towards Alternative Livelihoods for Food and Income Security, in four Indian Ocean Island Nations (Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros and Madagascar) and Zanzibar (United Republic of Tanzania). The efforts include technology transfer in beekeeping, capacity building, development of honey marketplaces and bee health research. The first phase of this initiative was concluded in September 2017. icipe launched a new phase in 2019.
  • In 2017, icipe was been designated an OIE Collaborating Centre for Bee Health in Africa by OIE – World Organisation for Animal Health (the intergovernmental organisation responsible for improving animal health worldwide). This designation is significant as it formally recognises icipe’s role as a hub of bee health expertise in Africa and globally.


Bayer Bee Care, Germany

Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, Switzerland;

Enhanced Integrated Framework/United Nations Office for Project Services (EIF/UNOPS)

European Union

Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)

German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)

International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

National Science Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (through an international collaboration led  Penn State University, USA, BREAD program)

Mastercard Foundation

United States Department of Agriculture

icipe gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the following core donors: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC); Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida); UK Aid, from the government of the United Kingdom; the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Kenya; and the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of these donors.