Honeybees Hanging On

The talk on bees by Mike Allsopp at the Green House at the beginning of June was a real hit. The auditorium was packed and questions flowed. The consensus was that all who were there learnt something about bees we they didn’t know before.

Mike explained that there are many thousands of bee species of which only a small minority produce honey that can be harvested.

South Africa has one honey-producing species (Apis mellifera) which occurs in 2 different subspecies – the African or Savannah Honeybee occurring north of the Klein Karoo, and the Cape Honeybee occurring south of the Klein Karoo.  Both types are wild bees, but can be ‘domesticated’ and systematically managed by humans as pollinators of food crops and producers of honey.

Despite the bad reputation of the African “killer bees”, they are actually not aggressive, but will only defend their resources, namely food, brood or honey. They even warn you by bumping gently into your forehead before they attack. It is best to heed this warning and move away – fast, because the sting of one bee releases a pheromone that will trigger other bees to attack as well – and they can’t stop until they kill.

Mike Allsopp explained that the sting of a bee evolved to be used against other bees in defending their resources. Apparently robbing other bees’ resources is a common practice amongst bees. The barb on the sting is designed to inflict a gaping hole in the exoskeleton of the other bee when it is withdrawn, leading to its slow death. Unfortunately for bees, mammals have an elastic skin, causing the barb to get stuck, and so the bee eviscerates itself when the barb is withdrawn.

South Africa is not a bee-friendly country. Forage for bees is scarce, so they have to constantly migrate to find suitable food sources. Only after eucalyptus plantations were introduced in the 1920s did bee keeping become commercial. Now eucalypts provide 60-80% of bee forage in the Western Cape. There are 10 or 12 species of gums that provide most food for bees, many of them non-invasive. Mike suggests that these could be managed, rather than eradicated, to help maintain our bee population.

Although lowland fynbos is good bee country, little of this habitat now remains. Mountain fynbos is not bee-friendly.

The real importance of honeybees is because of their use in the pollination of crop plants. This accounts for more than 60% of income of many beekeepers, especially in the Cape. The producers of about 80 different crops use paid pollination. These crops include vegetable seeds, deciduous fruit, sub-tropical fruit, melons, berries, oilseed crops, nuts, cucumbers and, beans.

The value added to the country by honeybee pollination is approximately R10 billion per annum, and half of that is in the Western Cape.   It is crucial for thousands of jobs and food security.


It’s clear then that a decline in bee numbers would threaten food production and could lead to grave food shortages. This is why there is a lot of attention in the media on so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). It is true that bee populations are declining all over the world, especially in Europe and North America, In which entire colonies die off for a combination of reasons, including parasites, pollution and pesticides.

How are our honeybees doing in South Africa? They are generally still healthy because they interchange with wild populations. Varroa mites, which infest adult bees and larvae, have been around since 1995 but our stronger bees are, so far, coping with these parasites. Badgers are a problem because badger numbers are increasing and they are very clever at working out how to defeat the best plans of beekeepers. American Foulbrood (a bacterial infection of hives) could become a problem, as could poor control of pesticides. Sadly, extreme levels of theft and vandalism by humans in parts of the country make beekeeping impossible there.

Mike cautioned that many of the reasons for bee decline in other parts of the world are increasingly also found in South Africa.

Bees are being over-worked as beekeepers move them rapidly from site to site. Demand for bee pollinated crops is increasing very rapidly as our population grows and gets wealthier. Demand for bee-pollinated foods is far greater than supply. Bee numbers have increased 45% in 50 years, but demand for pollination has increased more than 300%. Bees are now forced to work all year around pollinating crops, or producing honey to make beekeeping a viable enterprise. Despite their image as industrious and busy insects, bees, like all of us, need their rest to remain robust. A big problem is that mono-cultures found on large farms do not provide a balanced diet for them, compromising their immune systems and ability to detoxify pesticides and fight diseases.

Basically honey bees are being stressed by us – by the changes we have made to the planet, and by the demands we are placing on them. Their only real problem is the human population and its food demands. To a lesser or greater extent this will apply to all the other pollinators as well – with honey bees a good indicator species of global pollinator health.

What can we do to help bees? We can increase the forage ‘cake’ by planting bee-friendly plants on farms, parks, street verges and private gardens. We can be very careful with our use of pesticides; consumers can insist on ‘pollinator-friendly produce & practices’.

Incidentally, Mike pointed out that the neonicotinoid pesticides widely condemned in the social media are probably the lesser evil of many other pesticides. The available alternatives would probably be worse. We can also insist on proper regulation by the State. We can avoid killing honeybee colonies unnecessarily and rather have them removed where possible and, importantly, support local beekeepers and honey.


Mike Allsopp is senior researcher at the Plant Protection Research Institute of the Agricultural Research Council, working in Stellenbosch, where he has headed the honey bee research section for the past 24 years – and presently the only researcher in South Africa dealing with agricultural aspects of honey bees. He is seen above (right) chatting to Michael Raimondo of Green Renaissance.