In this Oct. 12, 2018 file photo, a man holds a frame removed from a hive box covered with honey bees in Lansing, Mich. The number of professional beekeepers is declining as many of them are going out of business voluntarily or due to the drought. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News via AP)
DURBAN - The number of professional beekeepers is declining as many of them are going out of business voluntarily or due to the drought, according to Professor Martin Villet from Rhodes University’s Department of Zoology and Entomology. 

This decline in the number of beekeepers was despite robust domestic demand and in part due to the lack of replacement of those beekeepers exiting the profession.

“Recruitment to the profession is rather low,” he said.

Wandile Sihlobo from Azbiz noted that there had been an upsurge of "natural honey" imports into South Africa, which increased from 476 tons in 2001 to 4206 tons in 2017. This data is provided by Trade Map.

“This is mainly due to a steady domestic demand, coupled with a decline in domestic honey production, currently estimated at about 2000 tons against the consumption of 5000 tons per annum according to industry experts’ estimates,” he said.

Sihlobo warned consumers about cheap "pure honey" as much of that is adulterated honey with sugar added. This cheap honey has made it difficult for South African beekeepers to survive and that is why many have given up as beekeeping is a labour-intensive occupation.

He suggested that the best indicator of whether you are buying pure honey or adulterated honey was the price.

“On average, a 500-gram bottle of pure South African honey retails for about R65. The adulterated honey often sells at a far lower price than this. In addition to that, consumers could look to trust larger brands which have a reputation to protect, or look at artisanal products where they know the beekeeper,” he said.

Apart from the R260 million generated by honey sales, bees are essential for horticultural agriculture as they pollinate plants.

“Bees are absolutely pivotal to flowering crops like citrus, pomefruits like apples and pears, stonefruits such as peaches and apricots, tropical fruits like litchis, mangoes, macadamias and berries such as blueberries and strawberries and many vegetables,” Villet noted.

Professor Francisco Sánchez-Bayo from the University of Sydney said the world must change the way it produces food and protect bees and other insects.

“More than 40 percent of insect species are dying out, and a third are at risk. The rate of loss is eight times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects decreases steeply 2.5 percent per year, which means that they can disappear within a century. If this source of food is taken from birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, all these animals will starve, which will have disastrous consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of humanity,” he said.

Although South Africa has not suffered a decline in bee population as in the US and other parts of the world, we do have a uniquely South African problem called the Cape Bee Problem.

“Basically, if bees from the Western Cape get into a hive of bees from further north, the host colony malfunctions and eventually dies. Because of this, there is legislation that prohibits the movement of commercial bees between these areas,” Villet said.