Insect man wins award

Saturday July 18 2009
mago sub 3 pix

Dino Martins with one of his subjects, a locust.

As far as he can remember, Dino Martins has always studied insects.

“I think I started when I was four or five years old. I didn’t watch TV, l watched insects. I was fascinated by them, and still am,” says the 32-year old Kenyan naturalist.

This fascination has served him well as he became the recipient of this year’s prestigious £30,000 ($48,900) Whitley Award from the UK based charity, Whitley Award for Nature.

Born in western Kenya, and brought up by foster parents Prof Joe and Sarah Ellen Mamlin — who started an HIV/Aids hospital in Eldoret in the 1980s — he speaks fondly of them for encouraging his passion.

By the time he was in high school at the Uasin Gishu Secondary School in Eldoret, Dino had a huge collection of insects with descriptions from personal observations and researched material. He was also an active member of the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya and the Young Farmers Club.

The fascination of a young boy with insects was the beginning of what was to lead him to the award, which is considered the Oscar of the conservation world, while the Goldman Award, of which Kenya’s Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai is a recipient, is considered its Nobel Prize.


“I was surprised when l was called about my nomination. I never imagined l would ever win anything like this,” says Martins. “The Whitley Award has in the past gone to researchers working on animals like elephants, gorillas and rhinos. But never to those studying insects. So this is really exciting,” he said.

“But the award is not really for me. It is for the pollinators and the farmers l have worked with,” says Martins. “Without them, l would not have got the award.”

Martins’ projects revolve around people, plants and pollination, with insects playing the central role. He said the award money will go towards funding projects channeled through the Insect Committee of Nature Kenya to projects with farmers based in and around the Rift Valley and Taita Hills.

“The award is about seeking solutions to real problems in the world,” he said. The other five finalists were from Bulgaria, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Uganda.

“The aim of the Whitley Award is to give support to conservation scientists whose vision, passion, determination and qualities of leadership mean that they are able to inspire local communities to take positive conservation action of benefit both to wildlife and people’s lives,” said Edward Whitley of the conservation charity.

Besides finding insects aesthetically beautiful, Martins is well aware these creatures play a vital role in providing humans and other creatures with food.

“Einstein remarked that if bees die, humans would survive on the planet for only three to four months,” says Martins.

“Plants like tomatoes and okra, which are grown by farmers around the Mbololo forest in Taita Hills bordering Tsavo West National Park, are pollinated by the same bees that pollinate the African Violet,” he said.

The African Violet is popular in Europe and the US and trade in the flower is worth $6 billion per annum.

The flower grows wild in the Mbololo forest and its natural habitat is the stretch of mountains between Kenya and Tanzania called the Eastern Arc Mountains, of which the Taita Hills in Kenya are part.

Martins found that the African Violet is pollinated by the long tongued bees.

“These bees hold the flower and vibrate it at a very specific rate and only then does the flower release the pollen. “This is called buzz pollination,” he said. “This same bee also pollinates the tomatoes and okra that the farmers in Mbololo grow and so what better argument is there for the farmers to protect the forest?” asks Martins.

Another example is papayas. “The only pollinators of papayas in Africa are the hawksmoths with extremely long tongues [with the exception of a few butterflies],” said Martins. “The hawksmoth, [so called because they fly fast like hawks) fly at night, pick up the pollen from the male papaya tree and fly to the female tree to pollinate it.”

Now if you get a papaya that is rich in colour, flavour and full of seeds, it means that there was a lot of pollen deposited by the hawksmoth on the female tree, and vice versa for one pale in colour and flavour, with a few seeds.

It takes a hawksmoth frequent visits for proper pollination to occur.

Other plants like watermelons, strawberries, mangoes, coffee, cowpeas and lentils need the same kind of frequent visits by pollinators to get the depth of flavour, colour and seeds.

“In one of my studies, I found that one in three of the foods eaten by humans is made possible by a pollinator, while in chimps it is nine out of ten foods. For a gorilla it’s two out of every three foods,” said Martins.

Unfortunately, most people will kill moths and insects because they see them as pests, not realising their importance in the food production chain.

However, the farmers in Kerio Valley grow hedgerows that provide food to the caterpillars and nectar for the adult hawksmoth. All pollinators need other sources of food as in the case of the long tongued bees and the African violet.

Martins said he will channel the award money to various community-based organisations and school groups and for training extension workers.

“We have selected schools where pupils will be asked to choose crops that are in the farms around them, observe what pollinators visit them and where the pollinators come from,” he said. “The aim of the project is to see what these children can do to protect the pollinators. We need more young Kenyans to become entomologists and be involved in good food production.”

However, Martins says that the pollinators of most common plants in Kenya are still unknown.

“What we know is that generally pollinators are in trouble, and this threatens the most basic human activity — food production. And we are nothing if we cannot produce food,” he said.

“There are massive losses of the honeybee colonies in Europe and North America, in what scientists are calling ‘colony collapse disorder,’ caused by a whole range of conditions.

“Until now, we have ignored farmers in Kenya though we have an excellent network of protected areas that are now edged by farms acting like buffer zones. These farmers hold the future of the country,” Martins asserts. He sees no better way to conserve protected areas such as indigenous forests and national parks than working with farmers whose crops are pollinated by pollinators from the protected areas.

“By raising awareness of pollinators, we can empower farmers in techniques of better and increased food production and at the same time safeguarding natural habitats. Farmers then have control over their seeds and seed production.”

This is markedly different from genetically modified foods where farmers are forced to buy seeds transferring their control of seed production to big corporates.

He says, “ In parts of Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea, the farming communities are still thriving by using seeds and farming methods going back 50,000 years. In Tanzania, women allow bees to nest on the walls of their mud huts because they know that these bees are the pollinators of their crops.”

“In many parts of Kenya, we still have what is called agro-farming, such as in farms around the Kakamega forest, the coastal forests and the dryland forests but these are threatened by overpopulation and poor farming methods.”

Martins attended the Indiana University in the US where he obtained his first degree in anthropology.

He got his Masters in Botany at the University of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa, with fieldwork done in Kenya. He is currently working on his PhD at Harvard University on the subject of pollinators.

Martins is an accomplished horse rider, writer, photographer and artist, illustrating many of his insect subjects and other flora and fauna, which have been used on posters, calendars and books.

Currently, he is writing a paper with Dr Paula Kahumba, the executive director of WildlifeDirect, on the misuse of pesticides in Kenya.