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All the buzz about the Cape honeybee on World Bee Day

CRUCIAL COMPONENT: The honeybee’s plant pollination function is as important to agriculture as water, land and air. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)

CRUCIAL COMPONENT: The honeybee’s plant pollination function is as important to agriculture as water, land and air. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 20, 2022

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Cape Town - Celebrating World Bee Day today, the Western Cape Bee Industry Association (WCBA) hailed the importance of bee populations and how the Cape honeybee fared while it faced threats of pesticides that devastated beekeeping in many parts of the world and its biggest challenge of late – rapidly dwindling forage for honeybees.

Beespoke Africa Beehives managing director Gary Petersen said bees were the most important pollinators because they contributed to food security, biodiversity conservation, and ecosystem stability.

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Agriculture Research Council senior researcher Mike Allsopp said the Cape honeybee was one of the two indigenous honeybees in South Africa and was indigenous to the Fynbos biome – the other was the African honeybee.

He said the Cape honeybee had a multitude of unique qualities, including resistance to the most vicious pest that has devastated bee-keeping in many parts of the world. One quality that left honeybee scientists baffled was the ability of infertile female worker bees in Cape honeybee colonies to lay fertile eggs.

“They’re able to literally clone themselves, which typically happens if the queen dies prematurely, thereby saving the colony from an almost certain end.

“This extremely rare phenomenon is as Thelytokous parthenogenisis,” he said.

Allsopp said scientists had been investigating why the Cape honeybee had been resilient in the face of attacks by the highly destructive Varroa mite and recalled the panic after the first appearance of Varroa in South Africa in 1995.

“The mites gorge on a honeybee organ called the “fat body”, wiping out whole colonies. Bee-keepers elsewhere in the world were forced to treat their hives with pesticides to control Varroa, but the mite continues to cause mayhem,” Allsopp said.

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WCBA spokesperson Chris Nicklin said: “Both South Africa’s indigenous honeybee populations are robust in comparison with honeybees in the rest of the world where there are dire predictions about their long-term survival.”

However, Nicklin said the most urgent issue was the rapidly dwindling forage for honeybees – this was the biggest challenge South African bee-keepers faced as this threatened the large-scale pollination service that bee-keepers provided to local agriculture.

“If we’re unable to stem this problem, bee-keeping will become unviable in the Western Cape, placing the pollination of our food crops in great jeopardy. As a measure of the problems facing the industry, honey production has dropped to 40% of what it was in the 1980s and the country is now awash with imported honey, often of dubious origin,” Nicklin said.

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This challenge has been coming on for many years, with some relief supposedly coming from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture’s plan to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Cape honeybee.

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Cape Argus

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