While South Africa’s farmers are increasingly adopting more bee friendly practices despite often incurring increased costs as a result, providing year-round forage to ensure the survival of the insects is an added and urgent priority.

Mpumalanga bee expert and apiarist, Inge Lotter says providing off-season forage for all pollinators alongside the country’s orchards and fields is now critical if the number of hives required for pollination services from the different agricultural sectors are to be maintained.

Lotter who has 750 hives and manages about 600 hives owned privately by farmers in her apiary business – The Beeger Picture – says without year-round food for the bees, optimal pollination for food crops cannot be achieved. “We all have to work together to protect our honeybee population. We all need to act now,” she said.

While some farmers and beekeepers have started planting large areas with good year-round bee forage plants such as the African Blue Basil in response to the widely shared details of the crisis during SAMAC Bee Forum talks in 2019, a country-wide initiative was required to stave off the collapse of bee colonies in commercial operations and in the wild.

“Providing adequate forage doesn’t only help beekeepers, but also helps to sustain the large population of wild honeybee colonies which apiarists rely on to re-stock their hives if colonies are lost. All pollinators, including the many species of solitary bees in South Africa, stand to benefit from the planting of forage as well,” Lotter said.

South Africa is home to two main honeybee species, namely Apis mellifera capensis or the Cape honeybee which is distributed in the fynbos growing regions which stretch from south-western South Africa eastward to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. To the immediate north the Cape honeybees are known to hybridise with Apis mellifera scutellata otherwise known as the African honeybee. The hybridisation belt is a narrow strip of land reaching extensively across the drier Karoo region before the distribution of pure scutellata populations become more evident further to the north and into the rest of Africa.

However, the spread of the capensis honeybee and its “parasitic” relationship with the African honeybee or scutellata population is becoming more widely spread as beekeepers move their hives from one area to another. American foulbrood – a fatal bacterial disease which can kill off entire colonies – has thankfully only been found in the Cape thus far.

And while South Africa’s honeybee species were generally healthy and robust with a large genetic pool helping them to withstand many common pests and diseases seen widely in first world countries, Lotter warned that complacency was a luxury the country could ill-afford.

“Theft and vandalism of both hives and colonies are one of the biggest problems the industry faces in South Africa,” Lotter said.

“I personally lost 200 colonies which included 76 hives – complete with bees and honey – to vandals and thieves last year. Losses average around 30% for many commercial beekeepers, particularly those who keep their hives over large areas such as in eucalyptus plantations. We have had to build expensive steel cages to try and safeguard as many of our hives as possible in areas where the incidences of theft are high.”

But, despite such precautions industry members were still suffering huge losses particularly in plantations and on some farms without adequate fencing.

As a result, Lotter said, the industry was finding it difficult to grow in line with the agricultural pollination demand and for beekeepers to make anything but marginal profits from what was very demanding work.

“Many of South Africa’s apiarists have either given up or emigrated as a direct result of these losses,” she adds.

And as hand pollination, particularly in South Africa’s growing macadamia sector was not viable she believed, the drive to reach more farmers to help them understand the value of honeybees for the success of their crops and how to make sure the bee colonies could perform optimally, was now a top priority.

“We have been networking with farming communities to raise awareness and to impress on them that they should only source their hives for pollination from registered beekeepers whose boxes carry their registration numbers. This is in line with the Agricultural Pest Control Act 1983 (Act 36 of 1983) amended in 2019: Beekeeping Control Measures relating to Honeybees. Many unscrupulous people will use stolen hives for pollination.”

A further challenge for apiarists wanting to stay in business was to safeguard their colonies from accidental poisoning. Lotter said she has personally been involved with the SAMAC Bee Forum, the Green Farms Nut Company Bee Forum and Ambermacs’ Mac Circle to try and reach as many farmers as possible to raise awareness on best pest control practices and how to protect pollinators.

“The rapid increase, in particular, of macadamia, avocado and blueberry orchards in South Africa, has meant huge and increasing pressure on beekeepers to respond with bigger numbers of bee colonies to satisfy the demand for pollinators. It has been estimated that we will need double the number of managed colonies between now and 2030 which, of course, compounds the quandary we face on how to keep the bees healthy and well-fed during the off-season,” Lotter said.

The mother of twins, whose husband and wild-life protection activist, Wayne Lotter was assassinated in downtown Dar-es-Salaam in what was believed to be a hit by syndicates operating in the illegal rhino horn trade in 2017, says her business is dedicated to the memory of his work and his extraordinary ability to think strategically.

“That’s why I called my business The Beeger Picture. Wayne was one of the most gifted lateral thinkers I have ever known. And it’s that vision that keeps me focused on what needs to be done now to not only save our honeybee colonies in South Africa but to grow them enough to comfortably service our agricultural sector. The health of all our pollinators – and thereby also our honeybee colonies – is directly linked to food security. Remember honeybees are not our only pollinators, just the most numerous and easiest to monitor. When honeybees in managed hives are dying because of our farming practices, many other species which are crucial to a healthy ecosystem, will already be gone.”

Lotter said since 2018 she had thankfully noticed a change in how farmers perceived the role of honeybees and the impact they had on their bottom line.

“The message must be clearly understood – and I believe it is being better understood – that if we delay in putting every effort towards saving and protecting our honeybees, we will lose so much of our country’s unique biodiversity. The road to repair the damage we are doing now will be a very long and very difficult one,” Lotter said.

How to be a bee-friendly farmer – ten tips:

  1. Don’t apply pesticides unless absolutely necessary while there are still blossoms in the orchard. This is difficult where several cultivars are present, as flowering periods differ.
  2. Always follow the instructions on the label – even if you have used the product before as instructions sometimes change.
  3. Mixing pesticides with sugar will attract bees.
  4. Do not spray in conditions where spray can drift onto hives, lands or natural bush where other beneficial insects reside.
  5. Early morning in the Lowveld is already hot enough for the bees to come out and forage, so night spraying is advisable. Remember: a wet bee is a dead bee.
  6. Avoid tank-mixing insecticides and fungicides. (Fungicides also affect bees, as they limit the fermentation of pollen, making it useless to the bees. This can even lead to starvation of broods dependent on pollen protein.)
  7. Warn beekeepers and neighbouring farmers at least 48 hours before applying pesticides so that they can move or cover their bees.
  8. Provide clean water near hives.
  9. Placing hives in dappled shade protects against extreme heat, and placing them
    on stands protects against honey badgers and ants.
  10. Hive stands that can be secured protects hives from thieves and vandals (often own farm staff are also involved).