Bees are ‘sick of hu­mans’ but it’s man who will feel the sting: ex­perts


In a wor­ry­ing devel­op­ment which could threaten food pro­duc­tion, South Africa’s tra­di­tion­ally tough hon­ey­bees — which had been re­sis­tant to dis­ease — are now get­ting “sick of hu­mans,” with the pop­u­la­tion of the cru­cial pol­li­na­tors col­laps­ing, ex­perts say.

The se­ri­ous­ness of the global prob­lem was high­lighted when U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama an­nounced a plan last month to make mil­lions of acres (hectares) of land more bee-friendly.

Loss of habi­tat, the in­creas­ing use of pes­ti­cides and grow­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity to dis­ease are blamed by many crit­ics for the plight of the hon­ey­bees.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal group Green­peace, which has launched a cam­paign to save the in­sects, says that 70 out of the top 100 hu­man food crops, which sup­ply about 90 per­cent of the world’s nu­tri­tion, are pol­li­nated by bees.

In South Africa, an out­break of the lethal bac­te­rial dis­ease foul­brood is spread­ing rapidly for the first time in re­cent his­tory, says Mike All­sopp, hon­ey­bee spe­cial­ist at the Agri­cul­tural Re­search Coun­cil in Stel­len­bosch in the West­ern Cape prov­ince.

“It’s ex­actly the same as around the world, the bees are sick of hu­mans and the pres­sures and the stresses hu­mans are putting on them,” said All­sopp.

“In the past they were less vul­ner­a­ble be­cause they weren’t stressed by in­ten­sive bee-keep­ing and pes­ti­cides and pol­lu­tion.”

The foul­brood hit­ting South Af- rica is the Amer­i­can strain of the dis­ease, he said. The coun­try’s bees have pre­vi­ously coped with the Euro­pean ver­sion.

The fear is that the dis­ease could spread north through Africa, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple work in small-scale bee farm­ing, All­sopp said.

“It is a tick­ing time bomb. Ev­ery colony that I’ve looked at that has clin­i­cal foul­brood has died, and we’re not see­ing colonies re­cover.”

When hon­ey­bee farmer Bren­dan Ash­ley-Cooper dis­cov­ered foul­brood in his colonies in 2009, he knew the worst was yet to come.

“We thought we were go­ing to have this ma­jor ex­plo­sion of foul­brood,” said Ash­ley-Cooper, a 44-year-old based in Cape Town. “I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what the ex­tent of it was. I was just wor­ried about the bees.”

Six years later, the night­mare has come true for the third-gen­er­a­tion bee­keeper as hives die off.

The state of South Africa’s bees has never been as bad as it is now, he says.

Bees un­der Siege

Foul­brood at­tacks the bee lar­vae, lead­ing to the col­lapse of the colony. It is spread when bees raid the dead colony, bring­ing back spore­in­fected honey to their colony, or by the im­por­ta­tion of con­tam­i­nated bee prod­ucts.

While North Amer­ica and Europe have bat­tled foul­brood for cen­turies, South Africa’s bees have stayed healthy — a re­silience at­trib­uted to the coun­try’s di­verse bee pop­u­la­tion, which has nat­u­rally fought off dis­ease and pests in the past, as well as strict reg­u­la­tions that re­quire any im­ported bee prod­ucts to be ir­ra­di­ated.

Yet to­day the hardy South African bees are un­der siege. “Foul­brood has spread mas­sively in the last five months, it has now spread over a 500 by 400-kilo­me­ter (about 300 by 250-mile) area where most bee­keep­ing op­er­a­tions are in­fected,” said All­sopp.

“It is grow­ing rapidly and I can think of no rea­son why it will stop un­less hu­man in­ter­ven­tion stops it or con­trols it.”

The stakes are too high for bee keep­ers to ig­nore, said All­sopp. “We can­not af­ford to lose our bee pop­u­la­tion, not be­cause of the losses of honey, but be­cause we have 20 bil­lion rands (US$1.6 bil­lion) worth of com­mer­cial agri­cul­ture that re­quires bee pol­li­na­tion.”


A pic­ture taken on May 18 shows a bee­keeper in­spect­ing a brood frame sus­pected of hav­ing been in­fected with the foul­brood bac­te­rial dis­ease on a farm near Dur­banville, South Africa, about 50 kilo­me­ters from Cape Town.

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