We need to protect our honey bees, not only for their survival, but also for our own. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) recently concluded a five-year study focusing on pollinators and in particular honey bees.
The goal was to create a knowledge base of pollinators and honey bees and raise awareness of their intricate nature, their needs in the wild and of pollination.
35% of world’s food requires pollination
Pollination is the bringing together of the male and female parts of a flower. Not all plants can pollinate themselves and rely on wind, water and certain birds and insects to do so. The honey bee is a great example of a pollinator.
While simply foraging for their own survival, pollinators allow a third of the food that we consume to grow. In fact, about 35% of the world’s food requires pollination of some sort.
A reduction in pollinators will result in serious concerns regarding food security and nutrition in areas that are already facing other socioeconomic challenges.
Pollination happens before fertilisation, which is required for fruit and seed development. If no pollinators are present, there won’t be fruit and seeds. Pollinators are therefore an integral part not only of our own food supply, but also the many plants that other wildlife depends on for food and shelter.
Bees are most efficient pollinators of crops
The most renowned pollinators are bats, bees and birds. Birds and bats must have undisturbed areas to reproduce and nest while insects use soil, dead trees and abandoned holes, such as those in termite mounds, to complete their life cycles.
Bees are the most efficient pollinators of crops because they forage among the same plant types in a single visit. Bees are additionally equipped with small hairs that pollen grains can stick to while they search for food.
Due to their unique nature and specific importance as pollinators, a significant part of SANBI’s research project focused specifically on honey bees.
It is very important for honey bees to have access to a variety of plants and crops in order for them to build a healthy colony. Bee-friendly policies and practices can help secure forage for honey bees, and thereby support South Africa’s beekeeping industry and increase agricultural crop production.
Bees threatened by climate change, disease, habitat loss
Western honeybees are suffering seriously from the impact of disease and habitat loss. Other bees that come to visit crop flowers end up being sprayed with pesticides. Overstocking and overgrazing of livestock also pose a threat to the honeybee’s survival.
Climate change, population pressures and land degradation are some of the other threats that bees are facing.
Some plants that you may deem intrusive or useless for your garden or your farmland may be exactly what a honeybee needs to survive. Eucalyptus trees (gum trees) for example, provide a reliable pollen source and nectar flow for honeybees. Off course, these are alien trees, and if they’re doing more harm than good, then it’s not worth keeping them on your land.
Some indigenous weeds are good for bees
Indigenous trees that are important for honeybees are fynbos, aloes and indigenous thorn trees. Certain agricultural crops like canola, lucerne, sunflowers and citrus are also significant forage for honeybees.
It may be an ugly sight for you in the garden, but some indigenous weeds (winter weed) and exotic weeds (Echium) are ideal flowering resources for honeybees.
If farmers provide an agricultural landscape that includes pollen, nectar, water, nesting sites and other elements needed by pollinators to complete their life cycles, they will enable pollinators to thrive. This will benefit not only the pollinators, but also the overall productivity of the farm.
Pesticides not good
Try to avoid using pesticides when the crop is in bloom. If this is entirely impossible, try shifting the time of day when the pesticides are being used. Pollinators are usually active during the day when flowers are open. Apply it in the evening when flowers are closed.
If you’re a farmer, do consider allowing beekeepers on your property and try to keep as much natural vegetation on your farmland as possible. It might not look neat to you, but the bees will thank you for it! And if the bees are thriving, it means that our diets will also thrive.
As a legacy left by SANBI’s research programme, the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town now boasts a brand new pollination and honeybee exhibit. Visit it on the second floor of the museum.
By Adel Groenewald