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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."
Bees are a critical part of our food cycle in South Africa but entire colonies and hives in key areas are being wiped out. "Bees are more important than any other domesticated animal because they are indispensable when it comes to our food security," says Mike Allsopp of the Agricultural Research Council.
Crucial to food production and biodiversity, a third of our plant products depend on bee pollination. The wild honeybee population is also vital in the conservation of floral reserves. Bees and other pollinators assist in the reproduction of almost 70% of all flowering plants, while fruit and seeds from insect-pollinated plants account for more than 40% of all food and beverages consumed. Moreover, fruit and seeds derived from insect pollination are a major part of the diet of about 25% of all birds and of mammals.
Bees are under immense stress due to commercial farming practices, pesticides, and monoculture crops. Wild bee populations are decreasing, and the greatest threat to these populations is habitat loss, as most wild bee species rely on specific habitat structures, as well as plants and nesting sites, which are declining as a result of modern agriculture.
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.
Research into the causes of colony mortalities in honey bees is underway, while improved hive management and beekeeper education is being implemented. Farmers are being encouraged to collaborate with beekeepers, and to maintain natural vegetation and encourage the flowering of wild plants near crop lands.
The government plans to clamp down on the registration of beekeepers, heighten awareness of the issue, and enforce beekeeping management measures – such as checking the larvae regularly – which are aimed at identifying the disease before it kills the colony.
So what can you do to help?
Always use as little pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in the home garden as possible; use natural alternatives whenever you can. When treatment is necessary, always use the most bee-friendly product.
Plant bee-friendly gardens
Plant bee-friendly plants whenever and wherever you can; from trees and hedges to groundcovers, herbs and vegetables.
Check with your local nursery to find the ideal plants for your region.
No need to limit yourself to indigenous, but plant water-wise and stay away from listed invasives.
Support bee-friendly producers
Promote the development of bee-friendly initiatives in commercial agriculture, with growers using the least toxic alternatives available, and promoting pollinator conservation on their farms.
Spread the word!