Durban – South Africa’s food security is under threat as its bee colonies are being depleted by an outbreak of American foul brood (AFB) disease.
The chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Bee Farmers Association, Craig Campbell, said the disease had wiped out thousands of colonies in the Western Cape and there were fears it could spread to other provinces. The first outbreak was in 2009 and it is believed that the disease arrived here through imported honey.
“There is no cure for AFB and there’s no guarantee that control measures in the Western Cape will prevent it from spreading,” he said.
The disease is transferred through contact with infected honey and equipment. Infected hives pose a risk to any other bee colonies within a 3km radius.
“What makes its particularly dangerous is that deadly spores can stay alive in the hive for 40 years or more, so it’s important for infected hives to be burnt to protect others,” said Campbell.
While they were asking beekeepers to continuously check their hives for infectious spores, they were also concerned that bee products brought in from infected areas could compromise colonies in KZN, including wild swarms.
“The honey that comes from other countries is irradiated to kill any bacteria, but the honey and bee products traded within South Africa don’t go through the same process.”
Professor Christian Pirk and Dr Hannelie Human of the University of Pretoria described the disease as the most serious honeybee brood disease known. They said epidemic outbreaks could have serious economic implications, including colony deaths resulting in loss of production and insufficient pollination service.
Bees are important for income generation through honey sales, and most KZN bee farmers pollinate commercial crops in the province and in other parts of South Africa.
Campbell said there were too many crops, such as litchis, apples and avocados, that were dependent on bees for pollination, and he feared for the country’s food security.
Export contracts could also be affected.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has expressed fears that a shortage of bees would increase pollination costs and/or affect crop production.
“Fewer crops mean less money per farming unit, which could result in job losses. Fewer crops may also manifest in the importation of products to fill the vacuum,” said the department’s Makenosi Maroo. She said beeswax should not be moved in or from the Western Cape and that producers of wax foundation should not accept wax from the Western Cape or sell foundation that might have wax from that province.
Maroo and Campbell said beekeepers should take responsibility for the health of their bees and register with industry organisations so they could have access to information about the disease.
“We hope to gain more insight on AFB during the National Beekeeping Conference which will be held in Hilton at the end of May, but in the meantime every beekeeper and those trading in bee products should be on the alert,” said Campbell.