The Humble Honey Bee – What will happen if they disappear?

The humble honeybee, known for creating the sweet nectar we call honey. In recent years, bees have been discussed in the media very often and many believe that they are endangered. What will happen if they go extinct?

Albert Einstein is erroneously quoted as saying: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.” In truth, no one knows who said this first, but it does shed some light on just how important the honeybee is.

A healthy interaction between plants and pollinators is vital to maintaining both plant and pollinator communities. Bees, as one of the most common and important pollinators, play an important role in maintaining this interaction and ensuring that pollen is transferred from anther to stigma, ensuring the propagation of plant life.

Let us explore pollination and it’s importance and look at the role of bees in the pollination process.
Pollination is the transfer of pollen grains from a flower’s male anther to another flower’s female’s stigma. The purpose of this process is to fertilize the flowers, thereby producing new seeds and allowing more plants to grow (this natural process is called propagation). Even though there are some flowers that are able to develop seeds without this fertilisation process (called self pollinators), some plants and flowers require help through cross-pollination and a pollinator, like a bee, butterfly or a bat, who needs to carry pollen from flower to flower, does just that.

Pollination is crucial for our natural ecosystem, as well as for artificial production environments such as farms because it directly affects plant and crop propagation. From an agricultural perspective, roughly a third of the food consumed by humanity comes from animal-pollinated plants. Should something cause crop pollinator populations to decline, it could have a devastating impact on crop production.

An estimated 25,000 bee species have been identified worldwide, each playing an independent and indispensable role in our environment. Bees are considered to be the most common and important biotic pollinators of angiosperms. The reason for this is that they are operatively and diligently able to gather pollen for themselves and their larvae. Bees are also significant in the pollination process of wildflowers and crops. Moreover, in northern temperate regions of our planet, like the U.K for example, bumblebees supply almost half of all the pollination.

South Africa is home to two sub-species of honeybee – Apis mellifera Scutellata (or “African bee”) and Apis mellifera Capensis (or “Cape bee”). Mike Allsopp of the Agricultural Research Council, said, in an interview with the Mail and Guardian, “We are somewhere between a crisis and a catastrophe,” as he has been warning of a collapse of African Bee Colonies for some time now. He further states “Bees are more important than any other domesticated animal because they are indispensable when it comes to our food security.”

Certain areas of the world, such as central Europe, the United States of America and Mexico, have been experiencing a significant decline in honeybee populations. The most well-known is the Apis mellifera, but Americans refer to them as Africanised Honeybees. Factors such as the effects of climate change, a decline in genetic bee colony variation, parasites, infections, the limitations on bee trade, and the use of insecticide on crops all play a role in this decline.

But, what contributes to this decline?

1) Pesticides

A common pesticide used by farmers in agriculture is a chemical called neonicotinoid. Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides with lethal effects. It is widely used in gardens and on agricultural crops to control pests. When exposed to this toxic chemical, some species suffer severe consequences, such are impaired smell and memory, reduced foraging, difficulty in flying, curbed procreation and increased susceptibility to diseases. Neonicotinoids work by dissolving it in water. If the pesticide gets into our water supply, the substance will steadily work its way into waterways by means of agricultural runoff. The flowers then soak up the water, exposing its stems, leaves, pollen and nectar to the toxins.

Studies show that queen bees that are exposed to this pesticide, are 26% less likely to lay eggs, reproduce or start a new colony and therefore, it causes a significant decline in the bee population – even result in the extinction of wild bee populations in some areas.

2) Bacteria

A very common and dangerous bacteria killing millions of bees is the American foulbrood disease. This serious disease is ingested by bee larvae in colonies and the bacteria grows inside them until it kills the host. This eventually kills the entire hive, leaving nothing but corpses carrying millions of infected spores. In due time, new bees will occupy the hive and they will suffer the same fate.

Thus far, South Africa’s honeybee population has been rather resilient to most diseases and outbreaks that have affected our bee population. However, this view seems to be rapidly changing. The deadly American foulbrood outbreak hit South Africa in 2015 and caused bee colonies in the Western Cape to decrease by 40%. Big producers, such as the United States, commonly treat this disease with antibiotics. The same practice can be followed here to keep the disease from spreading.

What can we do to prevent this?

1. Managing pollination

Currently, the only pollinator being managed in South Africa is the native honey bee. Managing honeybee colonies carries several advantages and, unfortunately, some disadvantages. The prime advantage extends to the foraging habits of the honeybees. These habits enable them to pollinate various crop species. The disadvantage to their transport capabilities is that they gather pollen which they then moisturise with nectar and honey, then store on their hind legs, resulting in the restricted availability of pollen available for pollination. Moreover, they are highly vulnerable to pesticides, diseases and parasites – posing a threat to their commercial use, requiring advanced management strategies. This is the reason why a honeybee is considered one of the lesser pollinators among the bee species. It is vital that other management options using native species are explored.

2. Support local and organic production

Organically produced fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of pesticides, which is advantageous for the environment and the bee population. Even though they are a bit more expensive, it is recommended to rather buy organic produce as the extra cash contributes to the health of the bees and better working conditions for the farmers.

It is also advocated that one buys humane and locally produced honey. When purchasing honey from hives on small and local farms, it contributes towards local business and supports the fair treatment of bees.

3. Create a Honeybee Haven

A home-made garden filled with bee-friendly plants and flowers can go a long way. This will help feed the local bees, especially in urban areas where there are little to no plants and flowers to pollinate. This will also increase the biodiversity of plants in that area. Create a beautiful, vividly colourful garden – it should be easy to encourage your peers to follow your lead, once they see your masterpiece.

4. Collaborate with Others

Building up a complete new beekeeping-farm can take time and a lot of patience. Sometimes it would just be more effective to take over an existing site. In this regard, it is important for farmers and beekeepers to collaborate and work together, not only in support of a build-up and insurance that it is done properly but also to communicate with one another on what insecticides should and should not be applied.

5. Urge your government to pass legislation

Specific and stringent legislation is required to prevent a further decline in our bee population. It is important for the government to step in and enact legislation that will protect the bees, test honey and imported honey products, to have educated bee-keepers and help them to manage the bees efficiently. It is our duty to urge the local municipalities to do so.

The significant role that bees play in our environment cannot be overstated. As the human population increases, so does the need for food. Bees help produce our food. If bees go extinct, our world will most likely become a harsher, much less vibrant place. Let us help the Humble Honeybee so that they can, in-turn, help us!