SarahBelle Selig is a freelance writer living in Cape Town. Photo supplied.
SarahBelle Selig is a freelance writer living in Cape Town. Photo supplied.

Record spike in pollination demand puts honeybees in danger

By Time of article published Dec 6, 2021

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SarahBelle Selig

The demand for commercial pollination services in South Africa has reached “colossal” levels. Farmers are worried that beekeepers won’t keep up, but honeybee advocates have another concern in mind: the honeybees, which will be pushed to the brink to meet farmer needs. With an overdemand for and undersupply of pollination services, the existing operators could triple their annual output to take advantage of the burgeoning demand—but that doesn’t bode well for the busy bees putting in the work.

Pollination demand hits all-time high

“The demand for the pollination industry is colossal,” says John Thornton, who operates Garden Route Honey Producers, a honeybee queen rearing business in Port Elizabeth. Orders for Thornton’s queen-right colonies have been increasing at an astonishing rate, as commercial pollinators expand their apiaries to keep up.

Thornton explains that, due to shifts in the global food market, farmers countrywide are planting fruits, vegetables, and nuts — things like almonds, apples and onions — at unprecedented rates. In just the blueberry and macadamia industries — with the blueberry industry doubling in size every few years, and the macadamia industry seeing one of the fastest growth rates globally, rivaling Australia — the dependence on commercial pollination services will hit critical levels within the next few years.

“What’s in the ground today in the Western Cape will require an estimated doubling of our colony numbers in the next 2 to 5 years,” Thornton says. “And that’s just for trees and plants that are already in the ground.”

And while beekeeper numbers are rising, it’s primarily hobbyist beekeepers entering the industry, who don’t have the know-how — or the hive count — to operate as pollinators. The number of operating commercial beekeepers, on the other hand, appears to have only slightly increased over the last five years, if at all. And with an older generation of commercial beekeepers ageing out of the industry, farmers may see an increased scarcity of qualified pollinators just when the demand for them reaches its zenith.

Little labourers take the heat

With a limited number of pollinators in the game, the existing operators will likely hike up the number of annual services they’re willing to do. Here’s why that’s a problem: while the beekeepers will be working overtime as a result, they’re not the only ones taking the brunt of that work. Often the case in business, that increased labour is going to end up on the shoulders—or wings—of the little guys: the honeybees who are actually pollinating the fields.

Riaan Van Zyl, from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (Dalrrd), says that the higher demand for pollination could put South Africa’s already vulnerable bee species at risk.

“With more demand for services and signed contracts for pollination, but with limited commercial beekeepers in the industry, every commercial pollinator’s apiary is going to be under severe pressure, doing more pollination rounds per year — maybe three or four, rather than one or two,” Van Zyl says. “Each of those bees is going to be working three or four times harder every year, which will negatively impact their resilience against diseases. This may end up with beekeepers that will illegally use chemicals such as antibiotics to suppress diseases.”

While there’s a heated debate around the ethics of commercial pollination, Chris Oosthuizen, the founder of Honeybee Heroes, a honeybee sanctuary and beekeeper training organisation in the Overberg, says it’s of little doubt that the bees are getting the raw end of the deal. “The reality for now is that pollination is an unfortunate necessity based on how we’ve constructed our food chain,” he says. “But from an environmental point of view, it is only negative for the bees.”

But some pollinators are better than others, Oosthuizen acknowledges. “While commercial pollination as a whole is negative for the bees, there are ethical operators who are operating in a responsible fashion… but there are many unethical operators who are pushing their bees too hard, too often.”

For example, he says, these beekeepers may be splitting colonies too soon and too frequently to increase their hive counts, putting colonies to work when they’re still too weak.

Thornton says that some farmers, whether knowingly or not, acquire pollination services from beekeepers who have not properly prepared their hives for a pollination. “It’s so important that these producers rent hives from the right suppliers: beekeepers who have quality control measures in place to ensure their bees are strong enough for pollination,” Thornton says.

But even the most ethical beekeepers can’t 100% guarantee bee welfare on the job. Every step of the pollination process puts bees at risk, Oosthuizen says.

Here’s why:

First, when the hives are transported from their home apiary to the farm requiring pollination, some worker bees will be lost because they are busy outside of their hives, even if the hives are transported at night. Worker bees separated from their colonies will die.

To transport the bees, the entrances to the hive must be boarded up to keep the bees inside. There is a natural honeybee phenomenon called bearding, in which the bees —when exposed to a sudden change in temperature — remove themselves from the hive to thermoregulate the interior. This keeps the brood, or honeybee eggs and larvae, from overheating. But they can’t do this if they are trapped inside. If transportation temperatures inside bakkies or holding locations get too high, it can be fatal to the brood.

The higher demand for pollination could put South Africa’s already vulnerable bee species at risk, says experts. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)

When performing pollination services, honeybees may be exposed to pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. These are often deadly to bees, either poisoning them or inhibiting their navigation system, preventing them from finding their way back to their colony.

The crops that the honeybees are foraging may be of poor nutrition. Crops like blueberries — while nutritious for humans — are actually low in nutrition value for honeybees, according to Oosthuizen.

When moved off the fields, any workers bees still busy outside the hive will be lost.

Between pollination sessions, honeybee hives may be stored in “holding” locations for up to several weeks, before moving onto another session. These holding locations often include exposure to unsafe weather conditions, extreme temperatures, and food deserts, preventing them from regaining their strength.

During pollinations, especially if the bees are exhausted from transport or a recent pollination, beekeepers sometimes feed them sugar water to encourage activity. This is poor nutrition and can render the bees more vulnerable to diseases, pesticide poisoning, and stress-related death.

Is there a better way?

Are South Africa’s honeybees doomed to a life on a bakkie? Maybe not, says Oosthuizen. “There are certain things that farmers can do, especially small scale, to limit the need for pollination,” Oosthuizen explains. “We can make the need for honeybee pollination less frequent and make the process — when it does need to be done — less dangerous for the bees.”

Overseas, practices are being instated to limit the detrimental consequences of pollination services. The most common, Oosthuizen explains, are mandates in regions of the UK and Europe requiring farmers to plant pollinator-friendly cover crops between their crops, or to cover vacant land with specific pollinator-friendly seed mixes.

Oosthuizen is encouraging South African farmers to look into these practices and identify ones that may work for them. He recently visited an apple farmer in Elgin, where they discussed options for more responsible pollination, including planting bee-friendly cover crops between their apple trees, rearranging their fields so that permanent hives can be placed on the farm, planting year-round bee nutrition nearby, and even spraying their pesticides at night to limit bee exposure.

At the end of the day, however, it’s not just the responsibility of the farmers to change their ways.

“The responsibility doesn’t lie on one group of people,” Oosthuizen explains. “Yes, first we need to speak to the farmers and decide, are there ways we can limit pollination needs? How can we prevent bee loss when it does have to be done? How can we incentivise farmers to make more responsible decisions, rather than just taking advantage of an available service?”

“But we also have to educate the beekeepers,” he continues. “What’s their responsibility to keep their bees safe? How can we transform the industry to prioritise bee wellness over profit?”

But according to Oosthuizen, there’s still one last missing piece in this story: you.

“The last thing we have to address is the responsibility of the consumer in all of this. Do we know where our food is coming from, and how it’s farmed? How can we better understand the source of our food, and the ethical —or unethical—practices behind its production?”

And that’s not just true for honey, although Oosthuizen is an outspoken advocate for purchasing raw, local honey. If you want to be a real honeybee hero, Oosthuizen says, it’s time to learn a little bit more about where all of your farmed food is coming from —whether it’s meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, or dairy—and to take responsibility for the role we each play in the future of our environment.

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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