Autumn blooms provide valuable nectar for bees during the cooler months. Picture: Lukas Otto
Autumn blooms provide valuable nectar for bees during the cooler months. Picture: Lukas Otto

Big buzz over bees…

By Time of article published Mar 8, 2012

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Honeybees are the pollinators of 60 percent of the flowering plants in SA.

The honeybee is also the main pollinator of many agricultural food crops, such as vegetables, fruit, oilseed crops and many fodder plants. Bees pollinate plants while foraging for nectar.

“Of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees,” says Achim Steiner of the UN Environmental Programme (Unep).

As early as 1996, the conservation of pollinators was being regarded as a priority by Unep because of the vital role they play.

The decline in bee colonies in the industrialised northern hemisphere started in 1998 and steadily accelerated to reach as much as 50 percent by last year, Unep scientists reported. Although bee colony loss in SA hasn’t affected the beekeeping industry as severely as in the northern countries, it is nevertheless occurring here.

Since the early 1990s, beekeepers and honeybees in SA have been faced with a series of significant problems including vandalism and theft, the persistent and continuous loss of bee-friendly foraging plants through habitat destruction, urbanisation and the increased use of pesticides, according to the SA Bee Industry Organisation (Sabio)

International honeybee diseases have also affected African honeybees significantly. Two species of parasitic mites have recently been detected in SA. The highly destructive American foulbrood disease arrived in SA even earlier, in 2009.

There has been a significant response to concerns about bee colony loss. Beekeepers now teach rural communities the practicalities of beekeeping, and gardens that attract bees have featured at international flower shows. Beehives have also been set up by Queen Elizabeth and US First Lady Michelle Obama in the gardens of Buckingham Palace and the White House respectively.

Ecoconscious urban communities abroad have been quick to act. In 2010, New York’s health department lifted the ban on keeping honeybees in the city and a growing band of New Yorkers are providing nectar plants and hives on the rooftops of that city’s office and apartment blocks. Hotels, corporations and department stores in London are also installing bee-friendly gardens and beehives on their rooftops.

Most cities in SA have by-laws that prevent beekeeping (with hives) in urban gardens.

If the situation deteriorates, however, these by-laws may need to be challenged.

Local gardeners can help the survival of endemic Cape honeybee colonies (Apis mellifera capensis) by making gardens as bee-friendly as possible. It may sound unlikely that small townhouse and balcony gardens can make a difference, but they can.

Your efforts could help enhance a nectar corridor, or provide a small but valuable feeding station in the urban environment.

The more gardeners who provide a bee-friendly space, the greater the security for our country’s food supplies.

Honeybees are good garden guests. Research by New York’s health department showed that they are not harmful to the public, and that there had been very few bee stings around the city since the ban on hives was lifted.

Bees like a diversity of bee-friendly flowers, with large patches of each kind of flower. They prefer a less manicured, more random garden – they even like some weeds.

You can make your garden more attractive to bees by doing the following:

* Plant 10 or more different types of plants that attract honeybees. Plant several of each type of plant close together, rather than planting them singularly.

* If your plant choice is limited by space constrictions, rather choose plants with blue, yellow, violet, bluish-green and ultraviolet flowers – bees prefer these colours. Similarly, choose scented flowers in preference to unscented blooms.

* Make sure to include some bee-attracting indigenous plants, as well as other garden favourites.

* Plant flowers that bloom at different times so that you have pollen and nectar sources throughout the year.

* Allow weeds such as dandelion and white clover to flower, as honeybees love their nectar. Simply pull them up before they go to seed.

* Sink shallow pans of water in your garden. Bees need clean water, but birdbaths and ponds are too deep for them.

* Avoid using pesticides in or near your garden. If this is not possible, choose an insecticide that is not toxic to bees.

* Choose plants with the most nectar-rich flowers for bees. Include these: White alyssum, lavender, fruit tree blossoms, Abelia species, agapanthus, Anisodontea species, bidens, borage, Buddleja species, bottlebrush, Californian poppy, escallonia, ericas, Felicia carpet geranium (Geranium incanum), rosemary, linaria, gaillardia, Salvia species, Scabiosa species, sage, sunflowers, thyme. cosmos, crocosmia and thyme, calendula. - Saturday Star

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