African so­lu­tion needed for de­cline in honey bees

The Herald (South Africa) - - Opinion & Analysis - TLOU MASEHELA

There’s wide­spread con­cern about the global de­cline of honey bees and the as­so­ci­ated loss of pol­li­na­tion ser­vices.

The honey bee is the most im­por­tant sin­gle species for crop pol­li­na­tion.

This is be­cause they are eas­ily man­aged and can be moved around to per­form pol­li­na­tion in dif­fer­ent food crops.

It’s es­ti­mated that one third of the food we con­sume each day re­lies on pol­li­na­tion and this is mainly pro­vided by bees.

But bee pop­u­la­tions are in de­cline. Sev­eral fac­tors have been iden­ti­fied as caus­ing the prob­lem.

These in­clude poor bee nu­tri­tion caused by an in­ad­e­quate in­take of nec­tar and pro­teins, the col­lapse of colonies, known as colony col­lapse dis­or­der when most of the worker and adult bees sud­denly die, threats posed by neon­i­coti­noids – in­sec­ti­cides af­fect the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem of bees – and fi­nally at­tacks from var­roa mite, a parasitic mite that trans­mits dis­eases and of­ten viruses to the bees.

Con­cern over bee pop­u­la­tion de­clines led to sev­eral in­ter­ven­tions be­ing taken.

These in­clude the sus­pen­sion or ban­ning of sev­eral pes­ti­cides across Europe.

In the US, bee health pro­grammes have been set up and funds pro­vided to im­prove bee health.

But so­lu­tions are hard to find, com­pli­cated fur­ther by the fact that in parts of the world, there are two dis­tinct groups of bees: wild pop­u­la­tions that roam freely, and man­aged bees which are en­closed in hives and kept for honey pro­duc­tion and rent­ing out for com­mer­cial crop pol­li­na­tion.

This com­pli­ca­tion has led us to a cross­roads.

New re­search find­ings are sound­ing the alarm that man­aged honey bees have the po­ten­tial to harm wild pol­li­na­tors. This re­search sug­gests that man­aged honey bees are an agri­cul­tural species – more like live­stock as they are do­mes­ti­cated and ac­tively man­aged by bee­keep­ers – and can harm other wild pol­li­na­tors.

This is par­tic­u­larly true if there are a high num­ber of hives which can lead to an in­crease in com­pe­ti­tion for nec­tar and pollen re­sources.

In these kinds of sce­nar­ios wild pol­li­na­tors come off sec­ond best.

What does all this mean for man­aged honey bees in dif­fer­ent parts of the world?

In par­tic­u­lar, are these new find­ings ap­pli­ca­ble to all coun­tries?

My view is that they aren’t, and that in coun­tries like SA dif­fer­ent con­di­tions ex­ist.

Re­cent re­search found that man­aged honey bees should be kept as far from con­ser­va­tion ar­eas as pos­si­ble.

This calls for some close ex­am­i­na­tion.

Where, for in­stance, is most of the re­search and com­men­tary com­ing from?

Does it make a dif­fer­ence that they are from non-African sys­tems, where honey bees are not indige­nous?

And what dif­fer­ence does it make that in Africa bee species man­aged by bee­keep­ers are the same as those that are wild?

African bees trapped into hives of­ten ab­scond and swarm, and at no time do bee­keep­ers have any idea if the bees there are “new or old ones”.

Does it make sense to even talk about a res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion of bees (man­aged or wild), be­cause they’re be­ing housed in a bee­hive?

How does one quan­tify which for­agers (wild or man­aged) are com­pet­ing against which or which ones come out on top?

This is­sue has be­come a bone of con­tention in the Western Cape where beekeeping pro­vides not only im­por­tant in­come for bee­keep­ers, but in­di­rectly pro­vides jobs in the ex­tended agri­cul­tural sec­tor.

It’s also a much needed pol­li­na­tion ser­vice to grow­ers.

As it stands, the pol­li­na­tion de­mand in the Western Cape in­creases an­nu­ally, with pro­jec­tions in­di­cat­ing mas­sive in­creases.

The re­gion’s na­ture pol­icy sug­gests that plac­ing com­mer­cial bee­hives on na­ture re­serves will not be al­lowed.

In ad­di­tion, the ar­ti­fi­cial re­moval of honey bees or bee­hives con­tain­ing honey bees will also not be al­lowed.

It’s said that plac­ing com­mer­cial honey bee hives in fyn­bos ar­eas – the 100 to 200kmwide coastal belt stretch­ing from Clan­william on the west coast to Port El­iz­abeth on the south-east coast – might neg­a­tively im­pact on the hun­dreds of other indige­nous pol­li­na­tors and their con­ser­va­tion ow­ing to com­pe­ti­tion for nec­tar re­sources.

At the same time, the City of Cape Town’s bio­di­ver­sity man­age­ment branch ac­knowl­edges that this as­pect has not been suf­fi­ciently in­ter­ro­gated, but that its man­date for con­serv­ing bio­di­ver­sity means that it must fol­low the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple.

But this ap­proach doesn’t make sense given that in the African con­text, wild and man­aged honey bee pop­u­la­tions com­ple­ment each other – they co-ex­ist be­cause they are the same species/sub­species.

In my opin­ion, they can­not be sep­a­rated or spo­ken of in iso­la­tion.

A num­ber of species have co-evolved with the nat­u­ral veg­e­ta­tion.

These in­clude the Cape bee in the win­ter rain­fall re­gion of south­ern Africa and the African bee in the sum­mer rain­fall area.

It would ob­vi­ously be un­wise to over­stock an area with man­aged hives.

But to test how much an area can ac­com­mo­date or even sup­port bee pop­u­la­tions will re­quire a good body of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence. This hasn’t hap­pened yet in SA.

It would be naïve to as­sume that there are no tan­gi­ble con­cerns when it comes to the com­plex­ity of wild ver­sus man­aged honey bees.

For ex­am­ple, re­search about the trans­fer of dis­eases strongly links the pres­ence and preva­lence of dis­eases and pathogens that are com­mon in man­aged honey bee colonies to dis­ease in wild bees.

But we of­ten hear the say­ing, “African so­lu­tions for African prob­lems” – and this is one of in­stance where this needs to be given weight.

It is not enough to sim­ply adopt and im­ple­ment an ap­proach de­signed in Europe or the US.

Africa’s sit­u­a­tion re­quires a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.

● Dr Tlou Masehela is a sci­en­tist at the SA Na­tional Bio­di­ver­sity In­sti­tute. This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared on The Con­ver­sa­tion web­site.

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