Honey bees – the Real South African Situation

Addressing the threat against bees is not just about toxins and diseases, or diverse bee forage – it is also about keeping an industry alive.

While we don’t have exact data, industry experts estimate that in South Africa we take on annual honey bee losses of around 20%, this may not be as high as other countries are currently experiencing, but in the greater picture of our consumer demand for honey, our purchasing behaviour and our understanding or lack thereof of our food security – the situation requires focus and a commitment to change.

There are many reasons that could be playing a part in how these losses are occurring, including losses from vandalism, a major issue in beekeeping in SA. Too, beekeepers are frequently reporting unusual bee losses and sluggish performance in their bees, so the health of honey bees is another aspect. While global research continues in a quest to find the answers as to why this is happening in their countries, as it is resulting in the total collapse of colonies, it is generally accepted that this is a result of multiple influences; diseases, toxins, a lack of diverse forage, over-worked bees through pollination season, amongst others. Basically there are too many different stressors on the hives, at once, and these translate into stresses on our beekeeping industry, which may ultimately play a role in a threat to food security for our country.

Vandalism is threatening the viability of local beekeeping

What is uniquely interesting in South Africa, is the impact that vandalism and even theft of hives, is having. Most beekeepers will tell you that there are simply ‘no-go’ areas for placing hives, which limits hive sites. As most beekeepers only keep an estimated 1% of their hives on their own land, the direct control of their commercial enterprise is reliant on availability of safe sites in areas out of their direct control, a reliance on sites on farms and in towns that supply good honey bee food, that are out of main thoroughfares – which discourage vandalism and theft.  Continual theft and property damage drives businesses into the ground. Producing locally in South Africa is becoming commercially unviable for some, as these beekeepers battle to find safe sites, and sites with the right food needed to keep the honey bee colonies healthy.

Over 3000 tonnes of honey imported annually

Due to this combination of stressors on the hives themselves, and the impacts of negative factors in operating a business, it should come then as no surprise to you that we are producing over 40% less of the honey we produced in the 80’s.  Figures suggest that as a result of this drop, over 3000 tonnes of honey is imported annually.  The increasing import volumes, making up the shortfall in local honey production, is exacerbated by the purchasing behaviour of the majority of South Africans.  We as a greater community are buying on price with this high ticket item, further driving this demand for cheap imports, around 90% of which are imported from China.

Honey bees pollinate over 30% of the food we eat.  Without our honey bees and our honey bee industry we would have less or none of these foods.  They are important to the production of over 60 crops in South Africa; to illustrate the breadth of their role, these foods include deciduous fruit, subtropical fruit, nuts, berries, melons, oilseed crops, fodder crops like Lucerne, and many seed crops.  Some crops are almost totally dependent on our honey bees, such as carrot seed, onion seed, pears, berries and macadamias; in agricultural production numbers we are talking around R20 billion per annum.  And the situation is set to bottleneck some more, as industry parties indicate that we will need to almost double our bee population over the next 10 years, in order to meet an increasing demand for pollination services.  This pollination demand is driven by our demand for more foodstuffs that honey bees pollinate.

Not being constructive in addressing the needs of honey bees, and supporting our beekeeping industry amounts to a food security threat for us, industry losses in the billions, losses that will result in job cuts too.  The ripple effect of not taking care of our honey bee industry is enormous. Playing a part in the threat against bees is not just about toxins and diseases, or diverse bee forage – it is also about keeping an industry alive.

Make a difference, in a real and direct way, buy local honey and honey bee products only.  Help develop the security of our honey bee industry in whatever role you can play.  It will make a difference.  You can make a difference.  Bee-Centric.

Text: Eve Puttergill    Images: ©Andre Cilliers

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