A looming crisis threatens SA’s bees and beekeepers

Because bees pollinate nearly a third of the world’s crops, commercial pollination services are an important and sought-after resource for many farmers. However, unscrupulous industry players are doing more harm than good by exacerbating the problem of declining bee populations.

The hive should have at least three frames covered with brood.
Photo: Lindy Botha

Farmer Giovanna Secco stands quietly among sweet-smelling macadamia and papaya flowers on her farm in Lows Creek, Mpumalanga.

“Where are the bees?” she asks.

It must be one of the busiest times of the year for pollinators on the farm, but despite Secco renting around 300 hives at R90 000 a month, the bees and their relaxing buzz are missing.

Secco has reason to worry. Studies show that without bees, the nut set of macadamia trees would only reach 30%. That’s why the industry is desperate for bees, and it’s not the only one.

The Mpumalanga Lowveld is also a hotspot for avocado, citrus and papaya production, and it is estimated that twice as many bees will be needed here in ten years to pollinate the growing orchards, all of which flower at the same time.

A recent study by Dr Hannelie Human from the Department of Entomology and Zoology at the University of Pretoria suggests that 70% of migratory bees in South Africa have disappeared.

The number of beekeepers is also dwindling and this is exacerbating the crisis. Beekeeper Michelle Lenferna says there are more beekeepers leaving the industry than entering the industry.

“Vandalism, the low price of honey and the decrease in honey production in colonies make it difficult for beekeeping to be sustainable. This will put the supply and demand of pollination services at a disadvantage for farmers, and there is a real risk that there will be no bees left in the future,” he says.

Lenferna has suffered numerous losses over the past three years due to vandalism and hive theft; in 2020 alone, its losses amounted to 350,000 rupees.

Lack of ethics
While Secco has taken steps to ensure its crops are pollinated, the absence of bees points to another problem: unethical beekeeping services. According to him, this aggravates the problem of bee population decline.

“Beekeepers blame farmers for spraying chemicals and killing bees, but this is not always the case. The bees brought in for pollination are so weak at the beginning that they can hardly do the job,” he explains.

Weak colonies and the disappearance of migrant bees raised alarm bells for Secco, who began investigating the issue on his farm and further afield. He brought up what he called a “disgusting industry.”

“We struggled for years to get decent bees on the farm and dealt with all kinds of beekeepers. One said that if we bought all the hives, he would do the pollination for us. It worked for a while and then all of a sudden it went away and we sat there with all the hives and no one to manage the bees.

“The other just didn’t bother to care for the bees properly. The hives would be placed in full sun and the bees would inevitably spend their days cooling the queen instead of foraging and pollinating.”

Secco has done its fair share to provide an adequate habitat for the bees on its farm. He erected structures to prevent badgers from stealing honey from the hives, and planted blue basil on the farm, a rich source of forage for the bees, which helped ensure a healthy, varied diet and prevent wild colonies from escaping.

Another beekeeper he hired couldn’t resist the benefits of basil and was found placing catch boxes next to the plants. “While we were doing everything to keep the bees on our farm, this beekeeper would collect the bees and take them to the next farm to use in pollination services,” he explains.

When the silence on Secco’s farm became unbearable, he donned a beekeeping outfit one night to see for himself what was going on in his hives. What he found were almost empty hives, some with no bees at all.

“And we were paying 90,000 rupees a month for it!” she shouts.

But how do untrained beekeepers know they’re getting their money’s worth? Secco says opening the boxes at night is a reliable way to determine if the hives are optimally populated, something very few farmers do. And even so, it is unlikely that many farmers will be able to identify a healthy hive.

Optimal performance
First, says Lenferna, the colony needs to be “queen-right,” meaning there must be a queen laying eggs in the box.

Beekeeper and Chairperson of the Mpumalanga Beekeepers Association Inge Lotter explains that productive hives are those with the maximum amount of hungry mouths waiting for pollen.

“That means a lot of baby bees needing food, which will require adult bees to go out and pollinate along the way.”

Farmers have the right to ask beekeepers to see the inside of the hives and must look for at least six frames covered with bees, of which three or four should be brood.

When trying to determine whether hives are active enough to provide pollination services, many farmers count the number of bees coming and going from the hives. However, Lenferna notes that bee activity varies throughout the day, so opening hives to count frames and brood gives a more accurate picture.

He adds that one colony of 30,000 bees is better than two colonies of 15,000 bees each. “A stronger colony will do more than a weaker one because only bees that are surplus to the hive’s needs can go out and forage. Bees will take pollen only when there are chicks to feed.”

He worked himself to death
In his search for answers to the paucity of bees, Secco came across beekeeping practices that he described as “tantamount to prostitution.” “Bees are absolutely overworked, so they weaken and die.”

He explains that unethical beekeepers cart bees from one farm to another to take advantage of the peak flowering season in the Lowveld. Then, instead of feeding the bees in the off-season, they sell them to sunflower farmers in the Highveld. When the Lowveld blooms again, beekeepers collect bees from the surrounding forest plantations and the cycle begins again.

Mike Allsopp, head of honey bee research at the Agricultural Research Council’s Plant Protection Research Institute, explains that when bees have good food, it would be wrong to consider them ‘overworked’, because the quality of food encourages them to work harder and reproduce. and develop.

“But without quality food, bees are forced to work harder for their food. This and the constant displacement puts stress on the bees and weakens them.”

He adds that commercial pollination settings are generally not profitable for bees because very high densities of bees are required to produce maximum fruit, nut or seed yields.

“In many cases, there is not enough food or enough variety of food to sustain colonies for long periods of time. Pollination services are not as beneficial to bees as they are forced to work in high-impact, low-reward commercial pollination conditions that result in overworked bees. “If colonies are overstressed, they will flee or starve due to lack of food.”

According to Lotter, the lifespan of a bee depends on the number of times the insect beats its wings. “The life span of a bee is determined by how hard it works; “The farther it flies to find food, the shorter its life.”

Allsopp says it’s good management to move colonies to a more bee-friendly environment so they can recover without becoming too weak.

“However, this is often difficult to do perfectly when managing thousands of colonies, and with highly variable seasons, some losses are to be expected during the pollination season.”

Secco questions the viability of capturing bees in the wild and using them for pollination services. “This is not sustainable, especially when these bees were moved from Lowveld plantations to Highveld sunflower farms, where they were destroyed by the agricultural chemicals they were exposed to.”

Allsopp says it’s also unclear whether bees were collected in one area of ​​the country and then moved to another.

“Actually, we don’t have enough information about South Africa’s natural bee population to make a decision on this. There is no evidence that the practice has reduced wild honey bee populations or that the move has caused any disease or genetic problems.

“Logic suggests that there is some degree of local adaptation in the population, which makes transporting bees over long distances unfeasible, and there should be some limit to how many colonies you can collect from the wild. However, there is currently no evidence that these are unethical practices. There is a great need for preliminary research to answer some of these questions.”

Secco believes it is just as important to support bees as it is to support ethical beekeepers.

“We need to create an environment that supports both bees and beekeepers. Bees are our greatest investment. You can have the best trees, the best soil, and the perfect weather, but if you don’t have bees, you have nothing,” he concludes.

Email Giovanna Secco [email protected]Dr. Hannelie Human at [email protected]or at Mike Allsopp [email protected].

Leave a Comment