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Bee active - pollen it together

Written by  Leoni Kok
| in Landbou
| November 20, 2015

”If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” – unknown
The popular quotation above is often, but wrongly, attributed to Einstein. No one knows for sure where this quote originated, but the more important thing is, is it true?

No one can answer this question definitively, because man has never faced a world without bees. But here’s what we know. A widely quoted study (published in 2006) estimated that a third of the world’s food production is dependent on, or benefits from, animal pollinators, mainly bees. This is often translated as every third bite we eat, but critics of the study and its estimates will quickly remind you that your diet is unlikely to consist of the entire variety of crops. (I have to concur; some of my friends would rather commit murder than eat Brussels sprouts!)  

“A third of the world’s food production is dependent on, or benefits from, animal pollinators, mainly bees.”

It is true that staples like wheat, rice, corn and potatoes are not dependent on insect pollinators, but a significant number of fruits, nuts and vegetables will disappear from our tables along with the bees. To illustrate to which  extent commercial agriculture is dependent on bees, here is an abbreviated list of South African crops that are mainly pollinated by bees: oilseed (sunflower and canola); deciduous fruit (apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries); squashes (pumpkins, marrows, and butternut); vegetable seed (onions, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and those pesky Brussels sprouts). 

Apart from much less colourful dinner plates, imagine a world without cut flowers. A world without bees is simply inconceivable.

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Are bees on the brink of disaster?

We may well be able to survive without bees, but we certainly (hopefully) wouldn’t opt to. So how true are rumours that bee populations are headed for collapse? 

According to Mike Allsopp, South Africa’s leading researcher into honey bees for the Agricultural Research Council, there are more bees today than there has ever been. This is mainly due to the increasing demand for commercial crop pollination services. And therein lies the rub. Although bees are in no immediate danger of extinction, the rate in increase of bee populations are inadequate to sustain the rise in the food production the world demands.

Bee representation? 

Given the crucial role of bees in the human food chain one would expect these little winged wonders to have their own representatives in parliament, geez the United Nations even, but this is not the case. Research about how bee populations are faring as a whole is lacking. Most of the available global data comes from honey farmers and commercial pollinators. It doesn’t include data from thousands of hobbyist beekeepers, or wild bee populations. Available data is also heavily weighted towards honeybees, while there are many other species of bees (like the carpenter bee) that are not kept commercially, but also play a crucial role in pollinating localised flowering plants and crops.

Alarmist media reports on the state of the bee population have stemmed mainly from colony losses experienced by commercial pollinators. In some countries like the United States these losses have been significant and have given rise to the term Colony Collapse Disorder. In short CCD is when the worker bees abandon hives despite there being plenty of food, leaving behind the queen and immature bees to fend for themselves with only a few nurse bees. 

There are no clear indicators of what drives CCD. A number of theories have been proposed, including agricultural poisons (particularly neonicotinoids), genetically modified organisms, global warming, habitat destruction, stress due to long distance relocations of commercial pollinator hives, however, studies have not produced any conclusive results.

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The foulest of broods

Thus far Colony Collapse Disorder has not been reported in South Africa, but another dreaded disease has raised its head; American Foulbrood (AFB). It’s believed that AFB was recently introduced (within the past seven years) to the Western Cape via contaminated imported honey. The bacterial disease is highly transmissible and almost impossible to eradicate. Spores of the bacteria can survive up to 40 years and as a precaution all equipment and hives that have been exposed to AFB have to be sanitised and are often burned to curb transmission.

Currently the AFB outbreak in South Africa seems to be limited to the Western Cape, but given its insidious nature, it poses a significant threat to the country’s honeybee population as a whole. Meanwhile the Department of Agriculture has declared AFB a notifiable disease and has undertaken a survey to establish the extent of its spread.

“It is possible that the AFB outbreak in the Western Cape was due to illegal honey imports.”

It is possible that the AFB outbreak in the Western Cape was due to illegal honey imports, because honey imported into South Africa has to be irradiated, and these regulations have been in place for more than two decades. Some countries - that can prove they are AFB free - are however exempt from these regulations.

Serious diseases like AFB are the reason why it is illegal for travellers to bring honey into South Africa from other countries. Remember this the next time you holiday in places like Mozambique or Namibia, and consider sneaking a bottle or two of honey back into South Africa.  

Unhealthy lifestyle

nov 2015 bees 3There is a general consensus among researchers that the world’s entire bee population is not all that healthy right now. A bit like us, they are suffering from the consequences of stress and inappropriate diets. An increase in agricultural crops has created vast tracts of monoculture (where a single crop is grown), so instead of having a variety of plants to feed off, bees in many areas have limited options.

Bees also have to cope with increasing pollution and poisons used in commercial agriculture. Hives used for commercial pollination are rapidly on the increase and these bees are often overworked, leaving them more vulnerable to diseases and reduced reproduction capacity. 

Reverting to a world in which bees are not used for commercial pollination is a pipe dream, so how do we fix matters?   Mike MacIntyre is a member of the South African Apiculture Federation (SAAF) and a very vocal proponent for the protection of honeybees. He is one of the Western Cape’s biggest honey producers and also heads up a group of cooperative honey producers in the province. He markets his honey under the label Mac’s Honey and although other producers in the cooperative each have their own labels, they supply honey to each other.  

Human rights for bees

Mike believes the commercial pollination sector requires better regulation and more humane standards. He suggests a more sustainable ratio between pollination and honey production periods so the bees have more time to recover. Most commercial pollinators argue that this is not economically viable.   

Availability of overwintering forage (when the bees aren’t working farmland) is another major issue. Most commercial bee farmers in South Africa don’t own their own land, but have agreements with other farmers to keep their bees on land where there are copses of trees and other suitable vegetation. The beekeepers usually pay those farmers in honey instead of cash.

Save the bee – donate your farm

In a perfect world all commercial farmers and landowners with under-utilised land would be planting suitable copses of trees and other habitat for bees, and inviting bee farmers to keep their hives there. Even windbreaks can make suitable homes for hives. So why aren’t more farmers entering into partnerships with beekeepers? 

John Hayes provides professional pollination services in the Western Cape and he also makes honey under the Pure Cape Honey brand. He says the most prevalent reason for the reluctance is due to security issues. Trust relationships need to be established which, given the current state of crime in the country, isn’t easy when the parties involved are complete strangers. The hosting farmer needs to allow the beekeeper and his or her workers access to their land, while the beekeeper has to ensure that hives are protected from theft and vandalism.

Ignorance is also a barrier. Some landowners don’t want so many bees on their land because they fear the bees would attack them and their workers. John emphasises that bees are benign unless provoked or threatened. This is especially true for the Cape honey bee. John has kids who are 3 and 7 who walk among his hives unmolested. He says the hysteria caused by the media about so-called killer African bees - especially in America - has done the industry a lot of harm.  

“The media about so-called killer African bees - especially in America - has done the industry a lot of harm. “

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For bee’s sake, lay off the gums

Farmers and landowners can do a lot to boost healthy honey bee populations by preserving stands of the much maligned gum tree. Gums are part of the eucalypt species and six types of eucalypts have to be controlled under the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act of 2004 (NEMBA). For this reason gums have been aggressively cut down over the past few years, especially in the Western Cape. This drives Mike Mac Intyre (SAAF) to distraction. He says of all forage gum trees are like super food for honeybees and they make an ideal habitat for overwintering bees. He estimates that almost 80 percent of South African honey is produced by bees foraging on non-indigenous plants, like eucalypts.  

He is not proposing that invasive species should be left to run amok. His grievance is with mature trees (which don’t pose a threat to the surrounding vegetation or water sources) being chopped down and then not being replaced with anything that will sustain the bee populations they support.

Recently the Department of Forestry and Fisheries relaxed legislation on gums and it is now possible to conserve certain types of eucalypts as long as they are away from watercourses and the reasons for their preservation can be qualified. Mike says the relaxed legislation causes more problems than it solves, because it is difficult to determine which type of eucalypts you are dealing with and teams who are responsible for their removal are not always properly trained to know the difference.

Guns to protect hives

Another major concern for commercial beekeepers is the wilful destruction of hives by vandals and honey thieves. This causes losses of hundreds of thousands of rand each year. Hives placed close to human settlements are particularly vulnerable and in northern KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, beekeepers have resorted to armed guards to stop vandals from destroying hives.  

The estimated value of a populated hive is around R3 000, so this kind of vandalism is devastating to the industry. Mike Miles is the chairman of the South African Bee Industry Organisation. SABIO is South Africa’s main representative body of non-commercial and commercial beekeepers and bee farmers. He says that not enough attention is given to the problem, especially since bees and beehives are not considered livestock, and the destruction and theft of them are not seen as stock theft.

Think straight, don’t fumigate

Vandals are not the only ones destroying hives. It is estimated that around 30 thousand beehives are destroyed at urban homes each year, most of them by pest control companies. Instead of using exterminators when a bee colony poses a problem, farmers and the public are urged to have them removed and relocated by experienced and registered beekeepers. The sabio.org.za website has contact details and email addresses for a number of beekeeping organisations throughout South Africa.

“The bees from 30 thousand hives can pollinate around 20 000 hectares of apples.”

The bees from 30 thousand hives can pollinate around 20 000 hectares of apples. If one considers what 20 000 hectares of apples are worth to the South African economy, it makes sense to preserve rather than destroy these colonies.

Resources to help you do your bit

nov 2015 bees 5As part of the Global Pollinator Project the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) has made available several research documents, guidelines and brochures to educate the public and the farming community about the needs and importance of insect pollinators, particularly bees.

The Project is an initiative of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, and SANBI’s researched focused mainly on the foraging needs of pollinators.  With more and more natural habitat being cleared for commercial farming and urban development, it is crucial that landowners and home gardeners do their bit to increase forage for bees. Carol Poole, project coordinator for biodiversity research at SANBI encourages interested parties to visit www.sanbi.org.za/pollination-honeybees. The webpage provides links to handy resources like lists of bee friendly plants, guidelines about eucalypts, there is even an educational film called The Buzz for Food and several presentations to clue you in.

Researchers and lobbyists needed

SANBI further urges the public to get involved in research about bees and other pollinators. A lack of data is one of the key factors hampering the drafting of regulations and guidelines to promote pollinator friendly practices. One of the ways for the public to get involved is to go to ispot.org.za and submit photographs and observations regarding pollinators.

Despite all the media exposure the plight of bees has received over the past few years, few strong public lobbies have arisen to drive awareness about the issue. In South Africa this could in part be due to a lack of cohesion among amateur and professional beekeepers, as well as honey farmers. 

South Africa’s growing demand for honey far outstrips current supply, so honey farming presents a significant growth opportunity for emerging farmers, as long as access to forage can be improved. According to SABIO’s Mike Miles the economic potential alone should incentivise policymakers to protect the local honey production and commercial pollinator industries. He does however caution that simply pumping
money into beekeeping development schemes is not the answer, but that these projects need to be properly managed and coordinated to ensure sustainable success.