Honeybee crisis catches SA off-guard

Albert Einstein is erroneously quoted as saying, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.” Although nobody knows who said it first, it does indicate the importance of the black-and-yellow insect.

Bees are a critical part of our food cycle but a disease is wiping out entire colonies and hives in key areas in South Africa. A R20-billion industry – of pollination, honey, and beeswax – is in danger of vanishing. “We are somewhere between a crisis and a catastrophe,” says Mike Allsopp of the Agricultural Research Council. He has been warning of a collapse of African bees for the past two decades and is an outspoken proponent of bees being given more attention.

“Bees are more important than any other domesticated animal because they are indispensable when it comes to our food security.”

But, he says, nobody listened and followed through with action because the population had historically survived any disease that came ashore. “We have been cursed by our own success.”

Because the African bee is hardier than any other bee species, local beekeepers became complacent and responses to any outbreak were left without planning, he says.


The problem is a bacterium that causes American foulbrood disease, and an outbreak has killed off 40% of the bees in the Western Cape this year. The bacteria are ingested by larvae in bee colonies. These grow until they kill their hosts, leaving a corpse with more than 100-million infected spores. Other bees then get infected when they come to clean the hive and spread the bacterium, which can survive for half a century and only fire kills it.

Fertilisation
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations says the bacterium has been around for a century and plagues bee colonies in much of the world. Without bees, farmers cannot fertilise their crops cheaply and in an environmentally friendly way. Two-thirds of the world’s food crops rely on bees for fertilisation, it says.

The common practice among big producers, such as the United States, is to treat infected colonies with anti­biotics. This keeps the bees productive and kills off the immediate outbreak of foulbrood, the FAO says.

But this presents the South African bee industry with a dilemma. Several local beekeepers say there is a split between those who want to use antibiotics because they have to meet large orders to fertilise farms and those who are worried about the dangers of antibiotics.

Brendan Ashley Cooper, a beekeeper and member of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association, says he lost 30% of his bees in an outbreak of foulbrood in 2009. He has since brought that death rate down to 1%.

“In big markets, FBD [foulbrood] is being managed using antibiotics and pesticides on an industrial scale. But, in South Africa, we have always prided ourselves with managing our colonies, so we do not use chemicals.”

This makes the bees’ other products – honey and beeswax – more valuable and means farming is better for the environment.

‘Natural selection’
His solution is to “speed up natural selection” by killing any bees that exhibit symptoms. This leaves the stronger bees, which should hopefully become more resistant to foulbrood, he says. “If we use antibiotics you mask the problem and the FBD will evolve until it is drug resistant.”

This year he lost 15% of his colonies, each with about 50 000 bees, because he became lax and stopped managing the population, he says.


Brendan Ashley Cooper says American foulbrood can be controlled by monitoring hives and killing those insects showing symptoms of the disease. (David Harrison, M&G)

Professor Theresa Wossler, a behavioural ecologist at the Uni­versity of Stellenbosch, says nobody was prepared for an outbreak because the African bee is so hardy.

The outbreak was a shock for the industry and it is scrambling to find a solution, she says.

The commercial use of antibiotics is being adopted, but this only temporarily solves the problem, she says. “If we do like other countries have done and use antibiotics, we will mask its clinical symptoms and create drug resistance.”

The best solution is to find a colony of bees that have survived the disease and to use their resistance to save the local species. But this takes time and a great deal of luck, she says.

Threat to food production
Other beekeepers have lost more than half their bees, making it hard for them to meet orders. David Malan, of the South African National Seed Organisation, says that although the disease is currently isolated to one province, it threatens the whole country’s food production. “If we do not have bees to fertilise – and here we are seeing a clear threat to their population – we are facing a serious crisis.”

The growing industry means there is an ever-increasing need for bees and, without this, it would be hard to produce enough to feed people, he says. “We need an urgent response otherwise we are going to have our backs against the wall.”

That response should be coming from the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Bees fall under its inspector services. But two different sources say the department does not have any inspectors overseeing beekeepers.

“We have the usual South African problem of great legislation but no implementation, and no consequences for people who ignore the legislation,” says one.

The department did not respond to questions before publication. But it has released press statements about the effect of foulbrood, saying it would greatly increase the cost of pollination and consequently the price of staple foods. It was waiting for the National Beekeeper Conference in May to evaluate the extent of the problem, and would work with the industry on solutions, it said.  

*This article was changed to remove a quote erroneously attributed to the South African Bee Industry Association.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

Related stories

Preventing Covid-19 from becoming a hunger crisis in Africa

The warning signs couldn’t be clearer that we need to act now to prevent millions dying from starvation

Times of unprecedented crisis present unique opportunities for unprecedented action

The world has a chance to improve the lives of women, especially those living in Africa

Not all of Jo’burg’s street traders can sell their wares under lockdown

Street traders are central to food security in Johannesburg. But since being declared an essential service under lockdown, street trade in South Africa’s biggest city has returned to uneven ground

Three months in, Covid-19 poses triple threats in Africa

Health, debt and hunger are huge threats to the continent’s stability

There are limits to what a capitalist government can do in this crisis

We need an entirely new way of doing things to put an end to poverty

Get cash out to the poorest now

People know what they need to buy, the payments can piggyback on the Sassa system and the money will help prevent people from falling further into long-term poverty
Advertising

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday