Our Beekeepers feedback on the impact of drought & fire on honey production

Bees, beekeeping and beekeepers in the South Western Cape are experiencing their 3rd year of very poor rainfall and drought conditions. The dryer than normal change in our weather is having multiple negative affects on our bees’ world. The low rainfall has resulted in little to no germination of some annual weeds and poor nectar secretion and/or severe die-off of some of the other more reliable bee forage. Diverse nutrition is essential in keeping our bees healthy to overcome other stressors affecting colony health. This shortage of bee food puts stress on our bees and their resilience.

The result of a shortage of good bee forage has direct affects on our bees and beekeeping. Good forage is directly responsible for colony built up and swarming. During these dryer times, beekeepers report catching less and smaller swarms in some areas compared to previous years. Feeding large amounts of sugar syrup (at a cost) has been necessary this year to help build up colonies for pollination and honey production. It has also been necessary to feed after spring pollination and through the hot dry summer months to keep the bees alive.

The dry vegetation is also very combustible. We now have a new phenomenon called fire season, which is due to the dryer climate combined with our strong summer winds. This is very stressful on beekeepers never knowing which area is going to burn next. These fires happen so quickly and randomly that it is difficult to reach our very combustible hives before its too late and they either have burnt or will burn, as the fire department is forbidding entry to the area due to a safety risk.

Brendan Ashley Cooper (1200 hives)

To give a more accurate insight into the drought effect on beekeepers, I asked a few beekeepers from different areas to please comment on their experiences.

My own experiences this year have been similar to the above.  Our bees came out of winter in the fynbos looking strong. Winter was dry and mild allowing our bees more and longer working hours to forage. The canola, which we use in the Durbanville area, was 2-3 weeks later than past years. This resulted in a later build up of the colonies for pollination. We were not able to achieve our spring splitting target, even after feeding large amounts of syrup. We had an unusually high incident of badger damage on a site in the canola due to the lack of other badger food. AFB levels was again at 2,5% and these colonies were destroyed as usual. Catching of swarms around the canola areas of Durbanville and Malmesbury was a complete flop with very few small colonies moving in and surviving. The bee colonies looked above average coming out of pollination. There were large amounts of brood and honey in most hives. I was excited! Once again we stimulated our hives by feeding sugar syrup to keep the queen laying and colony strong for the summer honey flows. We fed all our hives 3 times with 2 – 3l of sugar syrup, mixed 1:1.

We were caught by surprise by the fire in Gordons Bay in November and lost 16 hives. We were denied access by the fire department. Damn. My Beehives on the peninsula, which rely on a lot of urban exotics, wild flowers, weeds and Eucalyptus Ficifolia, were very disappointing this year and only produced about 1/3 of their normal late spring production. From my experience, summer is not really a time when bees produce much honey on the peninsula and this year is the same.

Autumn is nearly here and we are waiting to see if the reliable Brazilian peppers produce nectar this year? Eucalyptus Gomphocephala appears to be flowering well too.  Our hives outside of Cape Town work on Lucerne and Eucalyptus. The Lucerne flow was good in early December and then just stopped due to the low water table and hot dry wind. At least there was some honey. These hives have been split and are now in  fynbos areas with diverse nutrition to build up again and stay healthy.

Eucalyptus Cladocalyx also had a nice early burst, but appears have just stopped. At this stage, mid February, there are still a lot of buds on some trees in some areas. We cross our fingers.  Luckily the Simondium fires were ‘controlled’ and we lost no hives.

Helena and Pierre van der Westhuizen (Simply Bee)

The drought is not just affecting humans or cattle. Lawns have turned brown, vegetables are smaller and fewer, plants are dying. Alongside these victims of this year’s drought – the fall of the honey crop. Beekeepers, from hobbyist to mid-size to commercial operations, all report that the honey harvests are down anywhere from half to no production. The problem is most severe on the West Coast, which have suffered extreme drought conditions.

To make honey, honeybees gather nectar from flowers, bring it back to their hives and evaporate out the water by fanning their wings. The bees use the result – honey – for food, generously sharing any leftovers with humans. This year, there was a hitch: The drought slowed flowers’ nectar production to a trickle.

During a normal rainfall year beekeepers in the Western Cape will harvest honey from their hives two of three times a year. They harvest from October to March during a normal year without a drought. The taste varies by season; spring honey is mild and light of colour, while the next two harvests are dark and robust. Setting aside honey-loving humans, what did the drought mean for the bees? In short, it made it harder for them to prepare for winter. Bees need about 20kg of honey on a hive to survive the winter on Fynbos plants. Realizing the extent of the drought at our Simply Bee hives on Fynbos, we did not harvest our hives. We rather opted to buy in; fortunately the beekeepers along the coastline of the West Coast did harvest honey.

Stressed Bees: Honeybees in the Western Cape haven’t had it easy in the last decade. The threats they face include colony collapse disorder, American foal brood, pesticides and habitat loss. Add to these, the drought and it is very concerning!!

After all Albert Einstein did predict: “If the bee disappears of the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”  So long term, should we be worried?  The short answer is yes, with the huge change in weather patterns, which seems to be happening in our world, it’s upsetting to every wild organism. Honeybees have a lot more stressors than they did 20 years ago, then to add a severe drought on top of it just makes it a lot more challenging.

At Simply Bee we have felt the effects of the drought too, as our normal harvest would be between 15 to 20 tons per season and 2017-2018 we only harvest about 500kg, used difference. We are fortunate in the sense that beeswax, honey and propolis does not have an expiry date and that we can stock pile for the years!!!

Frans van Der Westhuizen(retired beekeeper – Citrusdal & Clanwilliam)

Vir plus-minus 20 jaar hou ek al reenval syfers en vanselfsprekend ook my heuning opbrengs. Dit gee vir my n’ duidelike korrelasie tussen die twee statistieke. Natuurlik is daar ook  n’hele ander  paar ander faktore wat n’ rol speel ,soos bv.vandalsme, ratels, ander insekte wat n, rol speel varroa, hive beetles ens, swak bestuur ens. min jong trek swerms  en ten laaste maar nie die minste boere  wat weier dat bye in of naby die boorde staan  dit sou blykbaar ernstige kruisbestuiwig veroorsaak wat weer veroorsaak dat daar pitte vorm in die sitrus vrug.Die belangriktse van al hierdie faktore is elk geval n’onder gemidelde reenval.

Hier in die omgewing is die byeboere (die paar wat daar nog is ) van mening dat dit in maande  Maart tot Junie  goed en volhoubaar moet reen . Om ‘n nektar oes te verseker, al reen dit ook minder in die res van die winter. Dit het alles te doen met ontkieming, blomset, dagtemperatuur ens.ens.. Met volop kos in die opbou vase beskibaar, word sterk swerms gevorm, en die res  spreek vanself. Al word die sitrus boorde ook besproei as natuurlike reenval swak is, is heuning opbrengs ook swak, ons  kan ook praat van min jong swerms, ratels wat nader beweeg uit n’veld wat ook droog is. Die jaar2017 was so ‘n jaar met min of geen reen die eerste ses maande van jaar en in totaal ongeveer 45% minder vir die jaar en heuning produksie af met plus-minus 30% tot5o%

Graham Hill (My fathers honey)

Build up for last years pollination on canola in the Caledon and Malmesbury areas was below average but enough swarms at pollination strength were available to satisfy my pollination requirements.After pollination, I use Echium to build up and maintain swarm strength in preparation for the Cladocalyx honey flow. Due to the drought, Echium was very short and as a result, swarms were not at their normal strength at the start of the gum flow.

I placed bees on Cladocalyx in Somerset West, Caledon, Grabouw, Villiersdorp and Franschhoek areas and honey production for January and February is 30% of last years crop.  ( I am hoping that the Gomphocephala flow which has just started will be better). Honey from the fynbos in the Stanford/Caledon area has started early so lets hope for a good flow this year to compensate for the gum disaster.

Danie Vorster (Overberg Honey Co)

Colony strength: Bees didn’t go into winter well due to below average honey season. Building up swarms for pollination time in canola wasn’t causing any difficulties as the warm days were in abundance and the bees had enough time to build up. The canola was much later in 2017 due to late rain. The swarms came out of pollination very strong but dry conditions started taking its toll on swarms. Spring build up: The bees build up quite nicely for pollination as the weather was in their favour.  Feeding: We had to feed our bees that were placed in dryer areas to sustain them till canola started to flower.  AFB: With inspections we had 1 swarm with afb, had the distinctive smell and snottiness. A Couple of EFB hives. Catching swarms: We didn’t catch a lot of bees because our biggest catching sites on canola only started flowering very late so not enough time for bees to build up and swarm in those areas. The fynbos areas where we catch bees had a lot of fire damage. Pollination: The 2017 pollination season went reasonably well, but the packham pears had extended flower and put the hive numbers under some pressure.

Fires: We lost honey producing and catching sites due to fire  Honey flows: It was an average flow for eucalyptus honey, fynbos struggled due to lack of rain. Not too bad, not too good.

Frustrations: The badger is becoming a bigger and bigger problem .No predator for a badger so their numbers are continually increasing and becoming a huge problem

Nelson de la Quera(Q Bee)

Klapmutskop byeboerdery het die ergste droogte beleef die afgelope seisoen. Ons het heelwat swerms verloor en die Heuning produksie was 70 persent minder as ander jare.Dit was noodsaaklik om die bye te voer om verdere verliese van bye te voorkom. Hierdie droogte het ook sy uitdagings op bestuiwing gehad om genoeg bye te he, wat op sterkte is. Oudshoorn en die Weskus waar die ander Broer’s boer was niks beter nie. Groot uidagings le voor as dit nie die winter goed reen nie voor vir ons bedryf.

Nic Lawrence(CA 915)

The canola seemed very variable in its flowering time this year.  While some of the canola fields up the garden route were coming to an end, those on the West Coast seemed only to be starting.  This was probably due more to the planting time of the seed than anything else, but still something worth taking note of.  Knowing when your own canola sites are going to start flowering, will help you better plan for all your early spring management.

My bees seemed to do really well on this season’s canola, which is in stark contrast to last season.  I thought the farmer may have been growing a new cultivar, but upon enquiring, he informed me it was the same.  I put the bees’ enthusiasm down to the extremely mild winter, with many more days strung together of good flying weather and good nectar production in the warm weather.  We were able to split twice as many hives as last year, and also found many of our catch boxes filling up with new swarms.  Of around 100 catch boxes I think we caught something in the region of 70 swarms this season.  Which is a far cry from our dismal catch return of the previous canola season.   Sadly, after the canola our optimism was fairly short lived.

We didn’t really get into the pollination this season, and rather moved our bees to the Echium, hoping for a good crop of spring honey.  Despite our efforts, we received a less than average crop.  One or two of our Echium sites produced fairly well, but by far the majority didn’t.  Again, I put this down to lack of rain – or more specifically, lack of the right amount of rain falling at the right time to really get the Echium into its own.

The lack of rain and ongoing drought in the Western Cape continues to plague us beekeepers.  It seems that the water table is now so low, that even the normally reliable Eucalyptus are taking strain.  So far this season, our supers are not being filled like they normally do.  They are also filling quite a bit later than they normally do too.  As beekeepers we can appreciate that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature, and can only remain optimistic that next season will be far better (and wetter).

Pieter Theron (A1 Honey)

I am running an operation of 350 hives, mainly in the northern suburb ranging from Durbanville, Malmesbury and Paarl, with a few odd hives in the Klapmuts area. 2017 was a year of utmost disappointment as we saw bees weakening and even dying as a result of honey shortages. It became clear that we cannot solely rely on nature for supplying food. Due to the involvement of blueberry population I needed to start feeding as soon as April to stimulate the bees as they had to be brought up to strength. Everything went well until the end of October. The drought clearly showed its effect and bees who did not receive feeding after pollination didn’t produce any honey in January. Bees that were fed produced a crop.

Louis van Niekerk (Kraai) 

It has been one of the toughest beekeeping years in a long time… mainly to the drought and fires

General : It has been one of the toughest beekeeping years in a long time… mainly to the drought and fires. On the positive side the honey price went up considerably, which is good and bad for us – good because we get a better price, but bad because we will get more cheap competition entering our market. Colony strength has been up and down this last year. Overall I must say that the bees coped very well in a difficult foraging year. AFB: I had very little AFB this year and the bees seemed not to be bothered by it. Catching: As it was a very dry year the bees did not swarm well this year. We caught very few swarms this year and this made it difficult for us to replenish our losses and replace colonies. Unless it rains and the food supply for our bees returns we will continue to catch very little swarms.  Canola: As we all know the canola was very late this year. It left some of us in a difficult spot to prepare our bees for pollination. The late rain saved the canola and we had a very good result from the canola that build up the weaker swarms just in time for pollination.

Pollination: Wow what a year. Pollination on my side was quite hectic with the cultivars flowering at wrong times. The plumbs, pears and apples were totally confused by the warm and cold weather. Pollination demand has definitively increased. We as beekeepers should be more aware off the demand and the price we charge for our services. In my mind the pollination price is still 10 to 20% to low and must increase due to the fact that everything else has increased; petrol, diesel, labour , car parts, tyre’s, exc. But most off all we have a new cost that will become more a determining factor in pollination. Feeding of bees will become our reality, if we like it or not. Feeding: It’s a given. It will change our industry. To keep the numbers of bees we keep going and healthy we need to feed them what they need. It is my biggest expense of the year but also my best money spent. Look after your bees and they will look after you. Due to fires the last year I lost 80% of my bee forage. Luckily for me I had a feeding programme to feed my bees in place. I have learned a lot this past year and has found out how to feed more effectively . It has been eye opening for me.

The future?

Are these experiences going to be the norm going forward? Is this one of the consequences of Global warming – the predicted climate change? Is beekeeping going to change to supplemental feeding of colonies to sustain the number of colonies needed to service the increasing demands of the pollination industry? What are the cost implications of feeding a protein supplement and carbohydrate (sugar syrup)? How will this practice affect colony health and the bees’ ability to shrug of new stressors? Will catching swarms to replace dying hives and increase colony numbers be a thing of the past? Is splitting our colonies going to be the only way to maintain our colony numbers, like the rest of the world?

Find out what your local beekeepers in your Province feed their honey bees in our Good Bee Food section, and manage your land with honey bees in mind!

The content of this article first appeared in South African Bee Journal April 2018, produced by the South African Bee Industry Organisation and is reproduced with their permission.

Read more about why we need to ensure we use our land bee-effectively.