Honeybees – flagships for life, food and job security

Photo Credit: WWF

Honeybees are slowly getting the recognition they need, and World Bee Day, celebrated on 20 May, highlights their importance to our lives and livelihoods.

‘Caring for honeybees is critical not only for their survival, but also for ours,’ is how Shelly Fuller from the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF’s) Sustainable Food Systems Portfolio, puts it. ‘In South Africa alone, over 50 agricultural crops that are essential for food and job security, and worth over R10,3 billion per annum to our economy, are pollinated by honeybees.’

These include canola, lucerne, sunflowers, macadamias, apples, pears, citrus, and stone fruits, such as peaches, apricots, nectarines and plums.

Fuller is leading a WWF Nedbank Green Trust project aimed at conserving the Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) in the fynbos region of the Western Cape, through sustainable hive management and indigenous forage restoration.

‘The Cape honeybee is a flagship of biodiversity in the Cape Floral Kingdom that provides an important agricultural- and eco service,’ she explains. ‘It’s an indigenous, natural pollinator but there is no longer enough natural forage for them, and there are not enough bees in the natural environment to pollinate all the fruit trees in blossom over the six-week period in August and September. An industry of portable hives, managed by beekeepers, is therefore an essential service to the fruit farmers.’

The project team is currently working with fruit farmers and beekeepers in the fynbos and fruit-growing areas of Grabouw and the Langkloof in the Western Cape, and is focusing on apples and pears, which need the Cape honeybee for pollination.

Fuller says: ‘The average seasonal rental is about R1 000 per hive, and roughly two to six hives per hectare are required, depending on the fruit type. Based on figures from the pome and stone fruit industry body Hortgro, the cost of pollination as a percentage of direct pre-harvest costs, is estimated to be around 3%.’

The project team has started assessing how many more managed hives are needed to sustainably pollinate new areas under agricultural production and how much indigenous forage is needed to sustain Cape honeybee populations in the natural environment outside of the agricultural pollination season. Together with the South African Bee Industry Organisation (SABIO) and the Western Cape Bee Industry Association, they are also assessing the value of honeybee pollination ecosystem services for agriculture and raising general awareness about how important honeybees are for life, food and job security.

To increase the bees’ indigenous forage, the project team is building on work being done to free up water in Grabouw and the Langkloof, through the removal of invasive alien vegetation. This is in partnership with local natural resource managers in the national agriculture department’s LandCare programme, corporate partners, farmers and landowners.

‘In these areas, a lot of work in clearing invasive alien plants from the river courses has already been done. Farmers and landowners now need assistance with the process of replanting indigenous species, which requires specialist knowledge to improve the success rate,’ Fuller explains.

With funding from its corporate partners, the project team is currently establishing and building on indigenous nurseries in the Grabouw and Langkloof communities, which also creates additional jobs. With input from fynbos ecologists and horticulturists they are fine-tuning which species are the easiest to kick-start indigenous biodiversity return.

The Langkloof is important for the project as it is both a fruit and biodiversity hotspot, with intensive agriculture in the valley, surrounded by a protected environment in the fynbos-rich mountains. ‘We are working with the non-governmental organisation Living Lands here to assess this area as it provides the most natural system we can look at in terms of agriculture in nature. Here, hives are managed by the beekeepers in situ and there is good forage to help sustain the bees outside of the apple and pear pollination season.’

The flipside is Grabouw where beekeepers need to transport in masses of hives all the way from the Overberg; it’s what Fuller calls the “industrial version” of the pollination service. When the hives return to the Overberg, a key source of non-agricultural forage for them is fynbos, as well as the invasive alien eucalyptus or ‘gum tree’. These trees are vital to sustaining honeybees in the late summer months throughout South Africa. However, the trees use up to 12 times more water than indigenous species, they also pose a fire risk and have extensively invaded catchment areas and rivers.

To support water security efforts, there have been widespread removals of eucalyptus and other invasive alien species over the past decade. This caused a massive outcry from the beekeeping industry, which resulted in a revision of some of the regulations in 2014. The revision identified eucalyptus species that could be left intact and species that needed to be removed from ‘sensitive areas’, including riparian habitats such as rivers, dams, wetlands and estuaries.

‘We are also addressing other risks to honeybee health, such as the spraying of pesticides and herbicides when the bees are busy pollinating as it can cause a mass die-off,’ says Fuller. Further risks include habitat (forage) destruction, climate change causing a delayed spring season or unseasonal droughts and storms, hive vandalism and theft, and the honeybees being overworked, which undermines their resilience.

Another part of the project includes the training of an initial two local beekeepers in Elgin/Grabouw who are being mentored by an established beekeeper in the business of beekeeping and honey-making. ‘Increased honey production is a good potential growth area for South Africa as we currently import more honey than we produce,’ says Fuller. ‘There is an opportunity to boost our honey industry and standardise the quality if we can sustainably increase the number of hives.

‘All honey produced in the fynbos by Cape honeybees should be traceable and certified and recognised internationally as a unique South African product being produced in harmony with nature. This is another project we can work on with the Western Cape Bee Industry Association.’

The project is also working with wine farmers in the Western Cape committed to biodiversity, such as Boland Cellar’s Trees for Bees programme. With Nedbank’s support they commit a portion of their wine sales to planting indigenous trees that are forage for the Cape honeybee. To date, 1 729 indigenous trees have been planted.

‘The long-term aim is to scale up the project with more fruit farmers, landowners and partners, based on a far greater understanding of the pollination needs of the fruit industry and improved stewardship of land and veld management,’ Fuller explains. ‘We also want to scale up livelihood options, including skills development in indigenous plant restoration, beekeeping and honey production.’