Emerging Explorer, National Geographic Blackstone Innovation Challenge Grantee
Photograph by Dino Martins
Photograph by C. Lewis
Do you like chocolate? Coffee? Pollinating insects make these and hundreds of other foods possible. The threatened habitats that support those insects may often be out of sight and out of mind, but Dino Martins brings their importance home. “Pollinators are one of the strongest connections between conservation and something everyone needs—food.” With his infectious enthusiasm and practical solutions, Martins acts as a pollinator himself, carrying crucial information to Kenya’s isolated farmers, schoolchildren, and a larger world of travelers and scientists.
“Insects are the invisible, behind-the-scenes workers that keep the planet going,” Martins observes. “They do incredibly complicated things but are never recognized for it. I’m privileged to be their messenger.” Growing up in rural Kenya, Martins saw the most basic interface between farms, food, and nature every day. “In the developing world, subsistence farmers are on the front lines of poverty, hunger, and either saving or destroying forests. Africa is especially vulnerable since so many of the crops that provide nutrition are 100 percent dependent on wild insects.”
Examples abound. In a shrinking fragment of forest, some of the last remaining African violets cling to a hillside and fight to survive. Long-tongued bees grasp the fragile flowers in their teeth, fold back their wings, and vibrate with unimaginable intensity to buzz-pollinate the blossoms. Energized, the same bees then travel to pollinate crops in nearby farm fields. But for how long? If the violets vanish, so could the bees, and ultimately acres of crops.
Elsewhere, a community of farms struggles on land degraded by deforestation, charcoal burning, and high pesticide use. Yet when passion fruit trees produce poor yields, what is blamed? Bees. “Farmers look at the big scary carpenter bees swarming around their trees and rush to kill them,” says Martins. “In fact, they need more bees, not fewer. Passion fruit nectar lies concealed below a lid in the plant. It takes a big hefty bee to lift the lid, extract the nectar, and pollinate the flower. A little honeybee could never do it.” Martins helps create a nesting habitat that will attract the big bees and allow pollinators and crops to flourish again.
Down the road, hawk moths flit from male to female papaya trees, their brief evening commute entirely responsible for the trees’ pollination and survival. “Papaya is such an important crop for many rural communities because it’s incredibly rich in vitamins, can be used medicinally, and survives drought,” Martins notes. “We help farmers recognize and protect its major pollinators.”
All across East Africa, Martins works to identify the most useful plants and pollinators, return them to their habitats, and help both ecosystems and local communities thrive. He stresses that “farmers need to understand why leaving a little space for nature isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for productive, sustainable agriculture. Farmers everywhere are conservative and skeptical. So I make one or two of them my champions in the community, demonstrating the success of our techniques. When others see the proof, they all want to try it.”
If you can’t find Martins with farmers in the field, try looking in an outdoor classroom. One school he’s involved with meets under a tree that’s buzzing with 400 species of bees. “The biodiversity is overwhelming,” Martins exclaims. He works with schoolchildren to start pollinator gardens; collect bugs; examine hairy, eight-eyed wonders under magnifying glasses; and identify the most relevant crops and pollinators in their community. “In largely illiterate areas, these kids are often the first in their families to go to school. They may be resource-poor, but they’re nature-rich. You couldn’t ask for better, more enthusiastic young scientists.”
Technology is transforming his efforts. “Now that rural Kenya has Internet and mobile phone connections, I can email the farmers and field scientists I work with. Eventually I want farmers to be able to take pictures with phones and send them to bee taxonomists on the other side of the world. I want Kenyan school kids to talk with U.S. kids about pollinators and crops where they live.” Martins’s blog links him with scientists across the globe. One recent entry about mango pollination prompted responses from the U.S., Italy, Nepal, Pakistan, India, and Ghana within just one day. His magazine articles, illustrations, and guidebooks are widely published. “Sharing information opens our eyes to the fact that the problems of the world are not unique to any one place.”
Martins stresses that everyone can make a difference. “Look at your next plate of food and ask where it came from, how it got to you. Every time you eat you can choose to support farming that’s shown to be good, rather than abusive, to nature and people. You vote with your wallet, your feet, and your mouth.”
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My name is Dino J. Martins, I am a Kenyan entomologist and I love insects. The Kiswahili word for insect is dudu and if you didn't know already, insects rule the world!
In Their Words
“Every single person on our planet has a diet that includes food made possible by pollinating insects. When this connection is threatened, all of humanity is threatened.”
Martins discusses the age old relationship between honeybees and humans—and its importance in the future.
Traditionally, it's the birds and the bees that get all the attention-unless you're an entomologist. Then it's the bees and the bees, not to mention the flies and the wasps and the moths.
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