Suitable forage is essential for the survival of honeybees. Strong, healthy bees are in turn needed to provide sufficient pollination for the country’s agriculture in general, and the growing fruit industry, which heavily relies on managed bees to supplement the service provided by wild bees.
Suitable forage is increasingly difficult to find, but bees still need nectar, which provides carbohydrates needed for activity.
Pollen provides proteins, fats, lipids, and micronutrients, including sterols, vitamins, and minerals. Bees cannot function optimally by feeding on just one kind of pollen, such as an apple or almond orchard, or a monoculture crop – they need a variety of crops to feed from. Malnutrition of bees is not only the failure to get enough food, but the absence of the right mix of food. Bees cannot survive and function on just one type of nectar and pollen – they need a balanced menu.
A lack of suitable forage – including a variety of wild flowering plants – leads to malnutrition. That in turn leads unhealthy bees that are more vulnerable to pests, disease, and poison. Plant biodiversity is therefore extremely important for the survival of bees.
Increasing demand for swarms
It is equally important for increasing pollination services. Statistics provided by Hortgro, a research institute for the deciduous fruit industry, show that 91 000 swarms (or hives) of honeybees are presently needed for commercial pollination of fruit orchards. This number is increasing by 15% per year.
In five years, an expected 100 000 swarms will be needed to provide sufficient pollination. Fruit growers in the Langkloof, Elgin-Grabouw-Vyeboom-Villiersdorp (EGVV), Ceres, and Klein-Karoo areas of the Western Cape, depend on commercial beekeepers to provide swarms for the pollination of their fruit, vegetables, nuts and edible oil crops.
Suitable forage is shrinking because of the following reasons, among others:
- natural veld must make way for agricultural to feed a growing human population;
- pesticides designed to make agriculture more profitable are taking their toll on pollinating insects, especially honeybees;
- the felling of blue gum trees in accordance with legislation for the control of alien plant species is removing valuable forage;
- The unsuitability of mountain fynbos means greater demand for bee forage elsewhere.
The reason why mountain fynbos does not provide sufficient forage for bees is because of the low nutrients in Table Mountain sandstone. Bees will survive, but with minimal honey and they struggle because the plants simply don’t secrete enough nectar. Those same plants growing in better Duineveld soils do supply adequate nectar. Ahead of the pollination season during spring and early summer, the commercial hives need forage that is rich in pollen and nectar to build healthy and strong swarms for the pollinating task ahead of them.
Canola fields that offer an abundance of nectar and pollen provide good forage. After the pollination season, these swarms need to rebuild the strength of the hive to help them survive through winter, and hives are often placed in or near areas where natural fynbos occur, such as conservation areas with indigenous plant species. At present, hives are not permitted to be placed inside conservation areas.
The placement of commercial hives near such a reserve gave rise to the concern that commercial swarms placed there may threaten the survival of wild bees and other pollinators. An assumption was made that managed honeybees may be overstocked on fynbos, and therefore threaten the biodiversity of the fauna and flora. The community of the Duineveld, a 50 km stretch of unspoiled fynbos along the Southern Cape coastline, expressed this concern regarding the unique type of fynbos, known as Strandveld dune thicket.
“The Duineveld is vitally important for forage to support the increasing number of bees necessary for commercial pollination,” said John Moodie of Honeywood Farm near Swellendam in the Western Cape. John has been keeping bees for more than fifty years and he is a recognized and knowledgeable role player in the bee industry. Speaking at the annual general meeting of the Duineveld Conservation Group in 2021, John said very few beekeepers have their own land, so they depend on other landowners for forage sites.
“Beekeepers always need sites for honey, but the need for increasing numbers of honeybees for agriculture, makes it even more important.” On the question whether fynbos species and other pollinators were threatened by overstocking of honeybees, John gave a resounding no. Firstly, there are no alien bee species in Africa, as is the case in the USA, Australia, and Europe, where all honeybee species are exotic alien invaders.
“In Europe and the UK, most of the indigenous honeybee species have died out because of bad management and disease,” said John.
Ten of the world’s 24 races of honeybees occur in South Africa. In the Western Cape, the Capensis is a unique honeybee in the fynbos area. It has recently been found that these bees can clone themselves, and for this reason there is a ban on moving bees from the southern provinces to the northern provinces, where the Scuttelata bees occur – hence the Scuttelata line, an imaginary border stretching from the town of Vredendal in the Western Cape to Willowvale in the Eastern Cape.
Secondly, he based his response on research done by Mariette Brand in 2009, while she was a doctoral student at the University of Stellenbosch.
Mariette placed eight beehives in the De Hoop Nature Reserve for one month to determine the influence managed hives may have on wild bees and other pollinators. She found that these swarms had no negative effect on the activities or survival of wild bees or other insect pollinators. David Rubik of the Smithsonian Institute, in his studies on competition between African honeybees and other subspecies in South America, found that they affected only the alien European honeybee populations, but no other wild bee species. He also found that African honeybees did not change pollination stability or species decline.
The price of honey
According to John, honeybees are not a threat to wild bees, as they belong to the same subspecies. “Landowners should be much more concerned about the threat of alien Argentinian ants and alien vegetation, such as Acacia cyclops (rooikrans).”
Ants compete for nectar, while dense stands of rooikrans have invaded vast tracks of land, threatening the Duineveld fynbos. A gall-forming biological control insect, Cecidomyiid Dasineura Dielsi, was introduced into South Africa for biological control, but with limited success. Beekeepers must by law register with the Department of Agriculture for the control of disease.
“Beekeepers do not comply easily, but regulations are in place,” says John. “The real problem is that a functioning swarm of honeybees consumes 60 kg of honey per year to survive. Where is this going to come from if not from crops, Duineveld or gum trees? In real cash terms, that means R100 x 60 = R6 000 if fed honey, and a bit less if they are fed sugar, but this is still a considerable amount.
“Are growers even aware of the absolute bargain they are getting for pollination service, and are consumers aware of what a realistic price should be for a jar of honey? “Beekeepers also totally underrate the value of their product or the valueadded service their bees provide.”
Now there’s honey for thought!
John Moodie at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Root, R.B. (2004, September 9). Argentine ants in the South African fynbos: effects on proteas and their arthropod visitors. Cornell University https://reeis.usda.gov/web/ crisprojectpages/0189503-argentine-ants-in-the-south-african-fynbos-effects-on-proteasand-their-arthropod-visitors.html
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