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Analysis: SA’s beekeeping is up 400%, but is it still poised to fail?

SarahBelle Selig is a freelance writer. Photo supplied

SarahBelle Selig is a freelance writer. Photo supplied

Published Oct 22, 2021


SarahBelle Selig

From the outside — with demand for honey and commercial pollination services reaching “colossal” levels, and four times the number of registered bee-keepers in 2021 than in 2016 — it appears that South Africa’s bee-keeping industry is on the up-and-up.

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But experts on the inside tell a different story: one of a fragmented, confused industry with resource scarcities across the board. Disorganisation, government mismanagement, insufficient training and sweeping initiatives to wipe out bee forage countrywide are setting the burgeoning industry up to fail. Without a full systems overhaul, these experts say the industry’s future is in peril. Here’s why.

Bee-keeper numbers give a false impression?

The number of registered bee-keepers countrywide has increased approximately 400% in the past five years alone, according to data from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (Darlrrd). This rapid growth is consistent across almost all nine provinces. For example, the Western Cape had 556 registered bee-keepers in 2016; in 2021, there are 1 343. In Gauteng, that number rose from 252 to 1 135. In Limpopo, from 85 to 623. In total, the number of registered bee-keepers in South Africa increased from 1 246 to 4 459 in a five-year period. One thing is for sure: beekeeping is becoming popular.

Now these numbers may give a false impression about just how fast the industry is scaling. A representative from the Darlrrd explained that some of the bee-keepers that have registered since 2016 may have been operating for many years prior, and only registered now due to new registration incentives from the Darlrrd and independent bee associations. But, most importantly, the representative clarified that this growth mostly reflects an influx of hobbyist and small-scale bee-keepers, with fewer than 50 hives — and that while there has undoubtedly been an uptick in the number of bee-keepers, the number of commercial bee-keepers with large apiaries has only increased slightly, if at all.

Charles Salmon, a senior agricultural adviser for the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, explains that many of the incoming registrants have a skewed perception about the industry, which causes them to back out quickly once discovering just how difficult the profession really is.

Salmon says that it’s very common for people to quit bee-keeping within a few years of starting. So while there are many people entering the industry, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re staying in.

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“Many people think that bee-keeping is an easy way of making money, that you can place hives anywhere and make honey, that it’s not hard work,” Salmon explains. “They hear that you don’t really need your own property, that you just need a friend with land and some hives and that’s that. This is definitely a misconception.”

Still, it appears that numbers are on a steady incline. And while that uptick should bode well for the future of the industry, it’s increasingly worrying for existing bee-keepers already fighting for one very important resource: land.

Issue #1: No cake left to eat

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Bring up the Department of Water and Sanitation’s Working for Water programme to a room full of bee-keepers, and you’re sure to get a few scoffs and sneers. Since 1995, the programme has cleared more than one million hectares of invasive alien plants across the country, specifically targeting eucalyptus, which has a bad reputation for sucking up more than its fair share of South Africa’s precious water supply and harming endemic plant life.

In practice, it’s actively destroying the species most responsible for keeping honeybees alive across the country — creatures that are increasingly necessary for South Africa’s food security.

“In the 1970s, there were lots of gum plantations in the Western Cape,” Salmon explains. “Most of the those are now gone. The South African National Biodiversity Institute has released research saying that 75% of the honey production is coming from the eucalyptus industry. And now hundreds of kilometres of that eucalyptus have been removed, and no new forage is being planted in that area.”

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With the number of eucalyptus trees in the country dropping rapidly, and nothing to replace it, hives are dying off.

Salmon recently spoke to two bee-keepers who cared for apiaries along the Breede River. Now, with the eucalyptus largely removed in that region, they’ve lost apiary sites for about 1 000 colonies between the two of them — resulting in a loss of around 25 000 tons of honey per annum. That’s a perfect example of why — despite increasing consumer demand for honey (South Africa is currently importing 6 000 tons of foreign honey per year) — Salmon believes our national honey production is going to decrease in the coming years.

“Because all bee-keepers are fighting for the same piece of cake,” he says.

Issue #2: No help from the big guys

Experts say the sector is fragmented, with resource scarcities across the board. Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

“If you want to be a bee-keeper in this country, don’t rely on the government to help you,” says John Thornton, the owner of Garden Route Honey Producers in Port Elizabeth.

“Government support for bee-keepers is zero. Nothing,” John continues. “The bee-keeping industry is so confused in government and it’s a nightmare. It’s situated in the wrong place, under Plant Care. Anything I want to do, to learn, is my responsibility. I don’t have anywhere I can go that tells me how to do it.”

Salmon, who has been beekeeping for 26 years, says that “about 70% of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association members are new bee-keepers. Most of the old bee-keepers, with all of the ‘know-how’, don’t want to be a part of these organisations. Only a few of them are working to help to improve the industry and pass their knowledge on.”

Issue #3: No curriculum to follow

It’s no surprise that the bee-keeping industry is having retention issues. For new bee-keepers entering the industry — or experienced bee-keepers dealing with new problems — South Africa has limited training resources available, and no accredited central curriculum. The courses that are taking place are happening on a small-scale, ad-hoc basis. Most of the bee-keepers are self-trained, meaning a wide variety of best practices are being used, and there is very little oversight to ensure that bee-keepers are operating in ways to ensure quality, ethics, and bee welfare.

Thornton says: “If I want to go find a qualified apiary manager, there’s nowhere in this country I can find one. I have to develop and train one myself.”

So that’s just what Thornton is doing. He and his team are self-training: observing what systems have worked best for successful bee-keeping businesses overseas, and adapting those practices to best suit local realities.

The same is true for Chris Oosthuizen, the founder of Honeybee Heroes, a honeybee sanctuary in the Overberg’s Stanford Valley. Honeybee Heroes offers free monthly training courses to bee-keepers in the region — as well as regular consumers interested in learning more about honeybees — and he also offers free use of his extraction and bottling facilities for bee-keepers to bring in their own supers (the boxes placed on a beehive for bees to store honey).

Through Honeybee Heroes’ community-run, micro-apiary programme, Oosthuizen and his team are training up low-income South Africans to care for hives on land donated by private land owners or reserves — land that was previously inaccessible to bee-keepers, as a way to mind the land-scarcity issue.

Each apiary manager receives comprehensive bee-keeper training and long-term mentorship from Honeybee Heroes’ expert apiarists, as well as free equipment and a percentage of proceeds from the honey extracted from their hives. For now, Oosthuizen’s programmes are primarily in the Overberg region, but he hopes to roll out 1 000 community-run micro-apiaries within the next ten years.

Oosthuizen is taking a proactive approach to the industry’s forage issue as well, by vigorously planting bee-friendly forage on his Stanford farm and encouraging nearby landowners to do the same. In just eighteen months, he has planted hundreds of new trees, including species like Cape Ash, African Walnut and Karee — indigenous alternatives to eucalyptus that are a great nutrition source for honeybees — and has allocated much of the land to fynbos conservation. Supporters adopting hives through Honeybee Heroes’ flagship Adopt-A-Hive programme also have the option to plant a tree with their hive.

Oosthuizen believes that by reworking the way farmland is managed —by planting flora in a way which optimises honeybee welfare — private landowners may be able to help counteract the industry’s rapid loss of forage and improve prospects for South African bees and bee-keepers alike.

Still, Oosthuizen says the industry needs a real overhaul if it wants to survive. He envisions a future in which "the old and the new work together, to balance forage and equipment and create a symbiosis in the industry”.

“If we could operate as a collective rather than as individuals, by sharing equipment, infrastructure, knowledge — the industry could thrive,” he believes.

He is not alone. Thornton is also still hopeful for the sector.

“The support may not be great in this industry, but the opportunities are,” Thornton says. “It’s an industry with so much potential and gratification. I’m committed to this career and I’m excited to be here, despite the obstacles. And when I talk to other bee-keepers — bee-keepers who are making a proper go of it like myself — that excitement is mutual. So we’re putting our heads together to find ways to move the industry forward.”

SarahBelle Selig is a freelance writer living in Cape Town and an MFA in creative writing candidate at the University of Cape Town.


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