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The Humble Bee: the pollination crisis in SA

28 Sep 2016

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.”
~ Anonymous

Bee ColonyDramatic as this point of view may be, some countries are already having to replace the role of the bee with an artificial process of plant fertilization by hand – a process that is not only be time-consuming but also expensive. Without the bee we are unable to fertilize our food crops cheaply and in an environmentally friendly way. More than two thirds of the world’s food crops rely on bees for fertilization.

Fertilization is the process by which pollen from the anther (male) of the plant is transferred to the stigma (female) of another plant of the same species, thus enabling the plant to produce fruit or seeds. Key pollinators are honeybees, non-apis bees, megachilid and carpenter bees, insects, birds, pollen wasps, butterflies, beetles and flies.

While there may be a 1000 known species of bees in South Africa, the most important is the honeybee, divided into the dark bee in the north, AM Scutellata, and the golden bee AMCapensis, in the south. Honeybees are highly mobile and can be used to service many different plants. They are most applicable to commercial management on a scale geared to supply the extensive pollination services required by large-scale crops such as sunflowers.

Bees as business

In the Western Cape alone, 60,000 hives would be required to service the numerous deciduous fruit and seed crops in the province. For the whole country, hundreds-of-thousands of hives, each carrying about 50,000 bees, are needed. Bees are estimated to contribute to more than 90% of the crops that require pollination.

At any given time, 20 billion rands worth of commercial agriculture requires bee pollination. Apart from the production of honey, propolis, bees wax, rooibos, sunflower oil and proteas, the commercial value of bees runs across just about everything we eat:

  • Deciduous crops such as apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums.
  • Vegetables such as pumpkins, marrows, patty-pans and butternut. Also onions, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts and cabbage.
  • Melons and watermelons.
  • Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, naartjies. Also mango, litchi, avocado, grandilla and papaya.
  • Lucerne, berries and nuts.

The plight of the Honeybee

Until recently, many people never gave the honeybee or its role in our food production, a second thought. Bees were everywhere, right? Thousands of them. Not only that but they did a job for humanity that was expected, regular and unquestioned.

But all that has changed with the advent of a truly awful disease: Foulbrood.

Its name is enough to send a shiver through us. And it is well-named – a thoroughly foul and cruel disease that has befallen the bright, busy species on which we depend for the survival of our own species. Foulbrood is a bacterium that attacks the bee larvae. It grows within the host – eventually killing it. The corpse is left infected with spores which other bees pick up when they come to clean the hive. And so the disease is spread. The bacterium can survive for decades – and only fire destroys it.

Other threats to the bee

  • Growing vulnerability to pests.
  • The consequences of overwork as a result of being moved long distances to work in short time frames.
  • Expansion of urban areas into viable forage land which has led to a growing scarcity of food resources for bees – flowers with nectar which provide the bees with energy and pollen for protein.
  • Pollutants such as noise and electromagnetism can also cause stress in the bees and make them susceptible to infections.
  • Mites may also feed off bees and infect them with deadly diseases.


  • Enforcing more stringent beekeeping management such as checking the larvae regularly to identify Foulbrood early and so prevent it from killing the whole colony.
  • Using antibiotics which, unfortunately, may only solve the problem temporarily because of drug resistance.
  • Planting bee-friendly plants wherever possible.
  • Supporting bee-friendly products that don’t use harmful pesticides.
  • Encouraging more people to become commercial beekeepers.  
  • Providing more land for beekeepers and planning effective development of new sites.   

Whatever may bee  

At Netafim, we know that farmers are constantly seeking to apply good farming practices. Our vision is to find solutions through innovation, technology, and what is the best environmental choice any farmer can make. Meeting the challenges of population growth, food and water is our daily stimulus – and it’s ongoing. And the more we work with the natural elements of crop health – including such aspects as bee farming – the more we learn about the rhythms of nature and the interdependency of life – and the best ways to maintain that balance so vital to our future.  

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