Beehive standards for commercial pollination services similar to those already in existence in the Western Cape topped the agenda at a recent bee farmer day in KwaZulu-Natal.

Dr Hannelie Human addresses delegates at the recent KZN Bee Farmers’ Association symposium

Dr Hannelie Human, who addressed delegates at the KZN Bee Farmers’ Association Symposium in Pietermaritzburg earlier this month, said the standardisation of commercial pollination services in areas like Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo – comparable to those already existing in the Western Cape – could be ready for adoption by next year.

“Macadamias, blueberries, avocados and kiwis are high value crops. Most of these that are grown in South Africa are exported elsewhere, mainly to  China. That means we need to deliver a crop that is of consistent quality. And to achieve this aim, we must take a more commercial approach to pollination services,” she said.

Human is an experienced researcher, rated by South Africa’s National Research Foundation, and a pollination specialist. Her field of research has included pollinator identification, pollination efficiency and ecology, floral biology and ecology, nectar chemistry, biochemistry and the effect of neonicotinoid pesticides on honeybee physiology, behaviour and nutrition.

Pollination is an integral and important part of input costs in an agricultural era where farmers are taking stock of the role of honeybees and how they add value to an operation’s bottom line, she said.

“I am urging growers to ask questions on what they are paying for. Farmers must understand how honeybees work and behave and what is necessary for them to provide optimal yield on a particular crop. They must know what reasonable expectations look like. Honeybee pollination can be converted into monetary value to justify the costs of renting hives.”

The scientist urged farmers to get clued up by developing a good and open relationship with their pollination services supplier, to take regular walks along the rows of trees in their orchards to make sure there were adequate flowers on the trees with a satisfactory number of bees working on them.

“Stand, look and listen. Can you hear the bees? Are there about five to six bees visiting each flower raceme in a minute? Are the bees coming out of the hives in sufficient numbers, and are they returning (in similar numbers)? Then they must also regularly check the quality of the hive,” she advised.

Commercial beekeepers had a responsibility to supply hives of a crop specific standard that justified the spend by farmers while meeting required expectations, she added.

“Farmers and beekeepers must agree, pre-season, on the required standards. We must protect the grower who is paying for a hive full of bees, not an empty box. A hive or colony of bees should be in a growth phase with the right ratio of bees and brood (larvae and pupae). There should be open and sealed brood with an adequate supply of stored food. The swarm must be pest and disease-free to ensure optimal work on pollination.”

Also at the Pietermaritzburg symposium, Western Cape commercial beekeeper Brendan Ashley-Cooper said growing awareness of the importance of bees and their link to world food security was cause for hope.

Brendan Ashley-Cooper, vice-chairman of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association, during his address at the KwaZulu-Natal symposium

“For example, urban gardeners are planting more bee-friendly plants on a growing scale to provide foraging opportunities for them. On a commercial scale though, as the global demand for food security grows, so the role of our bees as pollinators rather than honey producers becomes more critical. And, as the requirement for pollination increases, so does the demand for a more professional pollination services industry,” he said.

Ashley-Cooper, vice-chairman of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association, said while pollination service providers in the northern and eastern regions of the country were working in somewhat different circumstances from those in the Western Cape, there were similarities and overlaps that were foundational in deciding how much farmers should pay for the services.

One of the most obvious differences is that those in the Western Cape work with the regional Cape Honeybee or Apis Millifera Capensis, whereas those in the rest of the country have the Apis Mellifera Scutellata.

He said crop types and the duration of pollination varied, for example in some instances the hives were placed in Western Cape orchards for just two weeks, whereas in the macadamia sector in KwaZulu-Natal or Mpumalanga, hives could remain in place for up to three months.

Regardless, standards should be maintained, he urged.

“A professional pollination service is not about going along to your apiary and picking up some hives and then dropping them off in an orchard. There is an enormous amount of work that goes into pollination services and the tariff  is not a ‘thumb-suck’.”

With 2 000 hives under his care, Ashley-Cooper said a range of factors should be considered when deciding on a fair price. “A beehive costs R1 800 and it depreciates each year. A beehive that is boiled in candlewax should last about 15 years, and loses value at about R120 per annum. Then it can cost about R450 daily for a driver who takes on a lot of responsibility when driving our hives to orchards and pollination sites. For us, each bee site is about 70km away, then 80km to the pollination farm and home again. Our vehicles work very hard, often in difficult terrain, day in and day out. A cost per kilometre at the going rate is necessary,” he said.

The idea that bee farmers who provided swarms for pollination were making money out of honey production was just plain wrong, he stressed.

“When bees are pollinating, they are not making honey. An apiarist must also assess how much food is available for the bees when they are on site. If there isn’t plenty of diverse food for them then quite a lot is spent on feeding and stimulating the swarm. This is not inexpensive.”

Ashley-Cooper said farmers could not expect beekeepers to provide beehives prepared to a high standard at a low price. “I believe that we should all be delivering hives according to a set standard so that farmers know what they are getting and what they can expect. And this should all be in a written contract concluded pre-season.”

In the Western Cape Bee Industry Association pollination pricing document for 2023, beekeepers are recommended to charge R1 121 per hive plus VAT.

In the document, main input costs for beekeepers include transport (60%-70%), wages (20%), maintenance and equipment (5%-10%) and supplementary feed for working bees (5%-10%).

The document also highlights increasing costs over the past 12 months linked to the price of fuel (12.4%) and the sharp rise in wages (20%) and supplementary bee feed at 7%.

Human said further challenges facing beekeepers included viruses, pests, diseases, fire, climate change and theft and vandalism.

“It is the most awful feeling to walk on to a site where, three days previously there were beautiful swarms working, and then you get there, and the hives have been smashed, knocked over and the bees are dead.”

She said moving bees from site to site was also stressful. The insects can take up to two days to orientate themselves. “When you take a swarm from point A to point B, that causes stress. Yesterday they were on sunflowers, today they are in a macadamia or blueberry orchard. They must re-orientate as well to find their hives. It can be very problematic,” she added.

Human said her “ heart went out to beekeepers”. “I was in the Western Cape after the recent floods where hives were covered in water. An entire swarm in a hive takes two minutes to drown. That’s someone’s livelihood – all gone,” she said.