Scores of hives in a eucalyptus plantation during the off season, when the bees feed and build up their strength after pollinating macadamia trees.

A KwaZulu-Natal farmer who has taken up commercial beekeeping full-time says the delicate balance between profit margins and healthy bee swarms in macadamia orchards must be based on good communication and farmer education to ensure success.

Despite a nasty attack from an enraged swarm of bees when he was still at school, KwaZulu-Natal beekeeper Michel Lenferna developed a lifelong passion for the industrious little insects, which is now paying off as the demand for healthy swarms to pollinate macadamia trees grows in the province.

Lenferna, who lives in Baynesfield in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, tells the story of his first encounter with bees, which he said had him fascinated with them from that moment onwards.

“I was at Christian Brothers’ College in Pretoria. The brothers had five or six hives. One day I was watching the bees flying in and out of the hives when one decided I was in the way and stung me. When bees sting they release a pheromone, which alerts the rest of the swarm to the threat. The next thing I knew I was running around the monastery with a very angry swarm of bees after me. I must have suffered more than100 stings that day.”

Undeterred and as soon as he had recovered from the experience, he headed off to the school library where he pounced on the 1972 printing of the 34th edition of The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. The tome was first published in 1877.

The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, which was first published in 1877.

“I read it from cover to cover and have continued to refer to it over and over again for the past 42 years. Bees are probably the most researched insects on the planet and yet we still do not know all that there is to know about them. They are remarkable,” he said.

Five years ago, Lenferna decided to set aside all his other pursuits and focus on commercial beekeeping, which he admits is his absolute passion.

Building up to the 650 colonies he has today, however, has not been without challenges as the first 60 colonies were decimated by a farmer spraying pesticides while the pollinators were still in the orchard. And despite removing the bees immediately, just 24 swarms survived.

“It took me another year to build back up to 60 colonies,” he said.

A healthy nut set as a result of successful bee pollination in the orchard during the flowering season.

With a subsequent offer of a pollination contract from the Umhlatuzi Sugar Company outside Empangeni – which has diversified into macadamias – Lenferna was then faced with the challenge of growing his business to 600 colonies in just six months.

Now, with a need to increase his hives to 1 000, and with a long-term goal set at 2 000 healthy colonies to meet demand, the former farmer says he has his work cut out.

“My daily mantra is to only ever do what is in the best interest of my bees. If I look after them, I know they will look after me. Each day is a learning experience, particularly when it comes to making sure the colonies are healthy and able to pollinate the trees effectively while at the same time balancing the needs of the farmers. When an orchard is vibrating with the sound of bees and good insects, then you know the trees are in excellent health. But maintaining that delicate balance can be a challenge because many farmers – particularly those new to the macadamia industry – are still learning, for example, about the impact of agricultural chemicals on bee populations, or how important the bees are to making sure their trees are able to produce a good nut set and how many swarms are required in an orchard. Some experts say four to eight boxes a hectare, while others say 12. These are all aspects we are still learning about.”

Another huge challenge for commercial beekeepers is finding secure apiary sites with a good food source for their swarms once they are removed from the orchards.

“When bees are pollinating they are not creating honey stores, which means once they are removed from the orchards they must have time to recover and make food for themselves so they can get through the periods of food scarcity. Also, unchecked vandalism is a constant worry. The biggest challenge I have now is finding a good, secure food source for my bees off season,” he said.

As a result of all these factors, Lenferna has designed and is building his own hives based on the vertically modular Langstroth design and a frame design championed by master craftsman carpenter and lifetime beekeeper Dave Bowden. The hives are custom-made with a mind to allowing the bees the very best opportunity to pollinate the trees as effectively as possible before they are removed and allowed to rest.

“I employ three people who help me manage my hives and build the boxes.  A beekeeper cannot make a living from the pollination of macadamias only – I haven’t paid myself a salary for five years. So with honey production to supplement my income, I make and sell the hives for other commercial beekeepers and those who are just enthusiasts and want a few hives on their land,” he said.

With a number of speaking engagements coming up, Lenferna said he was also on a determined drive to educate the public – particularly farmers – on the importance of bees and how their health and well-being is directly linked to the health and success of the orchards and the natural environment.