Why Africa's bees are a sweet deal

While much of this year’s World Environment Day on June 5 will be spent discussing the fate of the oceans (the theme of the day is Wanted! Seas and Oceans: Dead or Alive?), something altogether smaller is also receiving attention in South Africa: the bee.

“Our people used to smoke [out] bees [and] that resulted in the burning of the forests. That’s one of the reasons why the African indigenous bee is threatened with extinction. Our task now is to conserve this bee,” Joyce Mabudafhasi, Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, said this week.

The African bee is regarded as the most aggressive of bee species.
But, “it’s also the most hard-working in the world. And its [honey] has got a sweet natural taste,” says Mabudafhasi.

This flavour—and the role bees play in pollinating the crops that supply fruit for South Africa’s large fruit industry—have ensured that the insects have economic as well as environmental worth. The bee industry is currently thought to be worth almost $466-million (about R3-billion), according to various sources.

As a result, efforts are under way to give people who fear bees a sense of their importance.

“We tell the communities, ‘Don’t burn the bees. Don’t torch them. Stop forest fire in the plantations. Look after the bees’,” says Jean-Marie Jullienne, CEO of the Bee Foundation, a private company based in Pretoria that will be working with the government to train new beekeepers.

“A bee lives only between 32 to 35 days—it has a very short lifespan. This is why we need to educate the community to look after them,” Jullienne said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

As part of its efforts to alert South Africans to the value of bees, the foundation plans to help 100 000 people in rural areas set up their own beekeeping businesses over a three-year period.

It will sell specially designed beehives (which come equipped with bee populations) to these people at a reduced rate of about R400 each; the market price for the hives is between R600 and R800. No specialised skills are needed to manage the hives.

When the honey is ready for harvesting, staff from the Bee Foundation will collect it—paying farmers just more than R780 for every kilogramme of honey. As each hive is expected to yield at least 20kg of honey every year, the farmers can look forward to a gross annual income of about R16 000.

After repaying the loans taken out to buy the hives, the farmers will have a net monthly income of about R1 000—no small amount in a country where most of the population was impoverished by apartheid.

South Africa currently has up to 10 000 beekeepers, but there is room for an additional 10 000, according to industry analysts.

“We don’t produce enough—we import honey every year. So we want to empower our people to produce more honey,” Mabudafhasi says.

Adds Julliene: “We produce only 2 000 tons per year. And we consume 3 000 tons per year. To fill the gap we import 1 000 tons every year from China and Australia. Yet South Africa has the capacity to produce 100 000 tons of honey per year.”

Mabudafhasi believes that alerting people to the value of bees will put an end to the destructive practice of smoking them out.

“They will not destroy [them]. It’s like farmers who do not destroy their cattle,” she says.

Bee farming has the advantage of being less capital-intensive than other agricultural activities, as it does not require large tracts of land, seed, fertiliser—or expensive machinery to till the soil and harvest crops. In addition honey production is not dependent on weather conditions.

Nonetheless, this potentially lucrative activity has, until now, been largely ignored in Africa.

“We have millions of hives in the trees. We need to bring the bees from the wild into the boxes—and we have asked for the support of the forestry officials [to do this],” Jullienne says.

“People in Africa have always been bee hunters, not beekeepers. Our role is to educate them and make them become beekeepers,” he says.—IPS

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