South African honeybees face enormous stress due to the expanding demand for commercial pollination services, which are described as having reached “colossal” proportions.
Adding to the problem is an excessive demand for these services and too few honeybees. Farmers are concerned that their needs exceed the ability of beekeepers to keep up with demand. Farmers could potentially triple their annual output to take advantage of the expanding market, but that means the bees will be over-stressed and pushed too far.
As a result, beekeepers have been ordering honeybee queens to expand their apiaries to take advantage of the commercial pollination boom, so their apiaries can keep up with the opportunities.
Luckily, honeybee advocates have one thing in mind: honeybees.
John Thornton operates Garden Route Honey Producers and raises honeybee queens. According to him, global food market shifts are causing farmers to plant fruits, nuts, and vegetables, like apples, almonds, and onions — at unprecedented rates. The blueberry industry doubles in size every few years, and the macadamia industry has one of the fastest global growth rates. The dependence on commercial pollination services will hit critical levels within a few years.
Beekeeper numbers are increasing, but new beekeepers are mainly hobbyists who don’t have the experience — or hives — to operate as pollinators. In contrast, the number of commercial beekeepers appears to have only barely increased in the past 5 years, if at all. Older commercial beekeepers are retiring, so farmers see a growing scarcity of qualified pollinators just when demand reaches a peak.
Fewer pollinators mean existing operators may increase the number of annual services they’re willing to do. That is a problem because not only will beekeepers work overtime, but so will the bees. The increased work lands on the wings of the little honeybees that do the actual crop pollination.
According to Riaan Van Zyl, from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (Dalrrd), the higher demand for pollination could put South Africa’s vulnerable bee species at risk. More contracts for services with limited commercial beekeepers will put severe pressure on every commercial pollinator’s apiary. Instead of 1-2 pollination rounds per year, it will increase to 3-4. This will impact their resilience against diseases.
There is an ongoing heated debate around the ethics of commercial pollination.
This 0:44-minute video by Africa Luxury Travel and Wildlife promotes conscious honey consumption in South Africa:
According to Chris Oosthuizen, founder of Honeybee Heroes, a honeybee sanctuary and beekeeper training organization in the Overberg, bees get the raw end of the deal. Commercial pollination is negative for bees and bad for the environment.
Oosthuizen acknowledges that some ethical beekeepers operate in a responsible way, but many unethical operators push their bees too hard and too often. For instance, they may split colonies too soon and too often to increase their hive counts, putting colonies to work when they are too weak.
It is vital for farm producers to rent hives from beekeepers who have quality control measures in place to make sure their bees are strong enough for commercial pollination services.
But according to Oosthuizen, even the most ethical beekeepers can’t 100% guarantee bee welfare at work. Each step of the pollination process puts bees at risk.
During hive transportation, some worker bees are lost because they are outside their hives, even if the hives are transported at night. Worker bees separated from their colonies will die.
For transportation, hive entrances are boarded up to keep the bees inside. The natural honeybee phenomenon known as bearding is where bees — when exposed to sudden temperature changes — leave the hive to thermoregulate the interior. This keeps brood, honeybee eggs and larvae from overheating. They cannot do this when trapped inside. Extreme transportation temperatures can be fatal to the brood.
During pollination services, honeybees are exposed to pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, which are deadly to bees. This poisons them or inhibits their navigation, so they cannot find their way home.
According to Oosthuizen, the target crops may be of poor nutrition for honeybees. Blueberries, for example, are nutritious for humans, but are low in nutrition value for honeybees.
Honeybee hives may be stored in “holding” locations for several weeks between pollination gigs. Here, they may experience exposure to unsafe weather, extreme temperatures, or food scarcity.
The sugar water that beekeepers feed honeybees during pollination when they are exhausted from transport or recent pollination is poor nutrition and can make bees more vulnerable to disease, pesticide poisoning, and stress-related death.
Oosthuizen explains that farmers can make the need for honeybee pollination less frequent and less dangerous for bees. Practices have been initiated overseas to limit the negative consequences of pollination services. For instance, in areas of the UK and Europe farmers must plant pollinator-friendly cover crops between their crops or cover vacant land with pollinator-friendly seed mixes.
More responsible pollination can include planting bee-friendly cover crops between crops or trees, rearranging fields so that permanent hives can be placed on a farm, planting year-round bee nutrition nearby, and spraying their pesticides at night to limit bee exposure.
The responsibility lies not just with farmers to change. Beekeepers must be educated about their responsibility to keep bees safe. How can the industry transform to prioritize bee wellness over profit?
The third component, according to Oosthuizen, is you. Does the consumer know where food is coming from, and how it is farmed? Understanding the source of our food, and the ethical — or unethical — practices behind its production is crucial.
Oosthuizen is an outspoken advocate for purchasing raw, local honey. If you want to be a real honeybee hero, he says, learn more about where your meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and dairy come from. Let’s all be more responsible for our roles in the future of our environment.
Not just in South Africa, but everywhere.