WHILE South Africa’s bees are still not in crisis, the agricultural sector should take steps to avert a predicament similar to that faced by bees and the crops they pollinate in Europe and North America, says Agricultural Research Council senior researcher Mike Allsopp.
Concerned about declines in the European and North American bee populations, the European Commission last month decided in favour of a two-year moratorium on using pesticides known as neonicotinoids that have been blamed in part for bees’ dwindling numbers.
While environmentalists celebrate the "victory", producers, farm lobbies and some scientists are warning of dire consequences if the agriculture industry has to return to old-fashioned crop spraying, lower yields and higher costs.
"The likelihood is that we have the same type of situation, but not as severe, and this should be a warning for South Africa — if we continue down the same path (as we are on now), we face the same disaster," says Prof Allsopp.
Pre-empting any looming bee crisis is important. Bees are a pivotal species in Africa — the most important generalist pollinator on the continent, pollinating 40%-70% of indigenous flowering plants and supplying up to 90% of commercial pollination, according to the South African Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi). About 50 crops in South Africa are insect-pollinated, with much of the service provided by beekeepers and their managed honeybees.
While many have fingered pesticides known as neonicotinoids, introduced to replace DDT in the early 1990s, as the primary or even sole factor in bees’ fade away from the fields, Prof Allsopp says things are not quite that simple.
Although science has not yet conclusively pinpointed the problem, it is most likely bees’ livelihoods — in South Africa, as worldwide — are being compromised by a "broad spectrum malady" comprising the global spread of pests and diseases; pollution, including pesticides; and a loss of forage, both in quantity and variety, he says.
Also, South Africa is a semi-arid country, with large swathes of land that does not harbour lots of flowers, and beekeeping has a short history in the country, taking off only when gum forestry did in the early 1900s.
In fact, the declines in bee populations in North America and parts of Europe buck the general global trend: the world bee population is larger than it has ever been.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) calculates that the global bee population increased by about 45% in the last half of last century, boosted either by greater demand for managed bee hives used by agriculture as pollination services, or by increased demand for honey; or both.
The problem is that the fraction of agriculture that depends on animal pollination also grew during that time, by an estimated 300%.
It is well known that the exponential increase in the global human population is putting pressure on agriculture to provide food for them all. Luckily, bees are not needed to pollinate most of the staple foods, such as wheat, barley, rye, maize and rice.
The problem is that, in general, people are also growing wealthier and people with more money want better food, including more fruit and nuts, both of which are animal-pollinated crops.
An Ernst & Young study, published last month, indicates that in Asia alone the middle class is now 525-million-strong — more than the European Union’s total population — and that over the next two decades, the global middle class is expected to expand by another 3-billion, coming almost exclusively from the emerging world.
Prof Allsop says fruit and nuts now make up approximately 35% of our diet, instead of the historical 5%, and agriculture needs more honeybee colonies to ensure the pollination of the world’s expanding orchards.
Only 22% of South Africa’s landmass is viewed as "high potential" agricultural land, with 14.5% of the total landmass suitable for cropping, but 80% is taken up by some sort of farming.
Here, as in much of the rest of the world, there is less food available for bees, and what is available is less suitable, thanks to the expansion of human settlements, which causes habitat loss, and the spread of monoculture — the continuous growing of one type of crop, which diminishes variety, important for bees’ ingestion of trace elements and amino acids.
"It is increasingly difficult to sustain bees on a natural diet," said Prof Allsopp.
Agriculture is, however, not all bad; it is becoming an important food source for bees and beekeepers travel South Africa with their hives to take the bees to their food, says World Wide Fund for Nature-SA agriculture expert Inge Kotze.
KwaZulu-Natal Bee Farmers Association chairman Craig Campbell says travel is "just part of the job" and, for farmers in the province, is prompted more by crop farmers’ need for pollinators than bees’ need for food.
The beekeepers are paid for their pollination service on crops such as apples, cherries and macadamias, from which little honey is made, while beekeepers pay farmers whose crops, such as eucalyptus, sunflowers and citrus, are big honey producers, he says.
"I travel up to 450km-500km ... it’s a win-win situation," he says.
Sanbi has two bee forage research programmes on the go, one national, the other international, says the projects’ co-ordinator, Carol Poole.
The research is not yet published but, in general has revealed that crops, fynbos and alien species such as eucalyptus are all important food sources for South Africa’s bees.
Ms Poole says the international programme is part of an FAO effort to bring developing-world bee research in line with developed-world research and to determine whether bees in the developing world are suffering the same threats as their counterparts in industrialised countries.
The research is being conducted in South Africa, Brazil, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Kenya and Ghana, and also touches on how important bees are to small-scale farmers.
When the research is done, there will be a first-ever global picture on what bees like to eat and how their existence can be saved.
"We’ve found out that honeybees are our most important pollinator. The research is so important to South Africa. We’d better do the research now to ensure we don’t go the same way as Europe and North America," she says.