30 May

The True Bee-keeper

by Karin Sternberg

It is a misconception that honeybees need beekeepers in order to save them. As humans we have a natural inclination to want to save things. But bees have been around for millions of years and were thriving and evolving without us. Their adaptations to different climates, geology, flowers, altitudes, ecosystems, predators, even weather (like wind!) is remarkable. To save our bees we need to let them be free to bee. We need to stop wanting to control or manage every aspect of being a bee, which inevitably changes their natural behaviour. Bees don’t need us to box them in hives or determine cell size and shape of comb through frames and foundation wax; bees don’t need us to medicate them and in so doing, kill all healthy and symbiotic microfauna living in the leaf litter and nest debris that can be beneficial in the fight against disease and Varroa mite, and at the same time kill off bees’ natural ability to develop coping mechanisms. Bees don’t need us to take and eat their honey, which really is their food and therefore their energy. In wild nests one does not find vast quantities of honey. There is always just as much honey stored as the bees may require to tide over bad weather days or drought so that they can continue all their colony functions, like caring for their brood, producing wax and bee milk or royal jelly, cleaning cells for the queen to lay her eggs, keeping the nest temperature and humidity constant…. If every beekeeper could turn their love of bees or wonderment at bees (and this is really what one should have if you are keeping bees) to watching bees do what they do naturally, then bees worldwide would be far better off and have the capacity to survive, if they are strong and healthy. The word ‘beekeeper’ needs redefining as those who are ensuring that there are swathes of flowering plants in our gardens, and tracts of wild flowers on agricultural land, and interconnected biomes of natural vegetation, not only providing forage and a natural pollination of orchards and agricultural crops for our consumption, but also habitat for all species of wild bees (and other pollinators). These are the true bee-keepers and in so doing, the bees will keep us and all future generations to come. Our focus should not be on maximising agricultural land for greater areas of food production and less peripheral wild pollinator forage spaces, but rather on vast spaces of wildness and a better and more abundant crop on existing agricultural land due to an abundance of varied and specialist pollinators.

Bees and Biodiversity In South Africa

South Africa is in a very unique situation in that roughly 80% of our honeybees  still live in the wild, unlike Europe where most of the bees are hived (Germany has 99.9% of all their bees living in hives and all the bees are managed and medicated. This means that Germany has lost their pure strains of wild bees). Having most of our bees living in the wild means that SA has a healthy gene pool of wild bees. Our bees need to be protected in their wild habitats to ensure that this gene pool is not weakened in any way. Bees are a keystone species and are vital for biodiversity. In the Cape we have the smallest and most diverse floral kingdom in the world. (The fynbos region covers less than 6% of SA.) This floral kingdom is primarily pollinated by bees. Honeybees and other species of bees pollinate 85% of the fynbos. It is vital that we protect bees in pristine areas so that biodiversity can survive.

How do we go about doing this?

From a biodiversity conservation point of view

  • First and foremost, the Cape honeybee is unique among all the honeybee (Apis mellifera) subspecies, and species (other Apis species) in the world, in that the workers are parthenogenetic (this means that they are able to “clone” themselves and therefore they are able to re-queen a colony if they lose their queen). Our nature reserves and national parks are areas where bees can live without being “contaminated” by hybridised farmed bees. The only place that pure Cape honeybees are guaranteed to exist is in the Cape Point Nature Reserve and in other remote areas. Therefore, this Reserve conserves unique South African biodiversity: (1) no other bees should be allowed to be introduced into this Park or any other conservation area, (2) any hives already introduced into conservation areas should be removed.
  • Researching the bees in these pristine areas is crucial for our understanding of biodiversity and the role bees play in this unique floral kingdom  (Ujubee has been working in this reserve and other areas for the past 5 years, researching the ecology of the Cape honeybee and other bee species).
  • Migratory pollination, i.e., moving honeybees around the country for pollinating crops that flower at different times of the year, is practised extensively in South Africa and is the principal occupation of bee farmers. This bee-keeping practice has resulted in local strains of bees, i.e., those from different parts of the country, being interbred and consequently, to a large extent, our local strains (i.e., genetic diversity) are lost. Those in conservation areas are therefore invaluable for biodiversity (genetic diversity) conservation. As mentioned above, this is particularly important where pure strains of Cape honeybees exist, i.e., the Cape Point Nature Reserve. Improving policies around safeguarding conservation areas (bee breeding zones, genetic stock) is required.
  • When honeybees are present in large numbers they drive other bees away from floral resources. Therefore, beekeeping may result in the demise of other bee species if the number of individuals is increased. This is because honeybees are not good pollinators of all plants – robbing some of nectar and not pollinating them. This can result in the extinction of some bee species and some monolectic plant species (plants with one or a few closely related pollinator species). Policies are needed here to ensure that we safeguard the semi-social and solitary bee populations and the plants that they pollinate.
  • Migratory pollination has spread bee diseases around the country, and some of these are notifiable diseases according to international animal disease laws. A common practice in SA is that conservation areas are used by bee farmers to “rest” their bees after the pollination season. This can also mean that some farmers “rest” large numbers of colonies in hives right on the boundaries of conservation areas, thus introducing bees into national parks/conservation areas, threatening the health of the wild colonies and putting all other pollinators under pressure.  When bee hives are kept in close proximity, as in an apiary, the risk of contamination is greater.  Policies need to be developed to ensure that the wild bees remain healthy.
  • As honeybees are the only managed pollinator in South Africa, exposing our protected wild populations to loss of genetic diversity and introduced bee diseases would threaten food security in South Africa (one-third of all the food we eat requires a pollinator, and these are our most nutritious foods) and biodiversity.
  • Risking our biodiversity to poorly conceived policies is something we cannot continue to do.
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