Agriculture is South Africa’s largest sector, contributing more than R14 billion annually to the deciduous fruit sector. Phirdy Motala, beekeeper and director of the Farmyard Honey Factory, explains why bee survival is so critical to this industry.
Motala, who worked as an academic before going into beekeeping, says the only species of bee used to pollinate commercial activities in South Africa is the commercial honey bee. The bee has two subspecies, called Apis Mellifera Scutellata and Apis Mellifera Capensis.
“The Apis mellifera scutellata occurs in the summer rainy areas and then the Apis mellifera capensiscommonly known as the Cape honeybee, it occurs in areas with winter rainfall.”
She explains that the capensis more or less follows the geographic presence of fynbos, which stretches from across the Western Cape to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
Above that, there is a region largely defined as a hybrid region, where there is a mix of capensis and scutellata bees. Then above that belt there is the scutellata area.
“It’s important to understand that crossing breeds across those borders can lead to huge problems. What actually happens is that the capensis tends to act as a parasite to the scutellata colonies, and they eventually die out. In short, those areas are very different, and in fact we are not allowed to move bees across those borders in South Africa.”
The structure of the colony
In order for bees to be effective pollinators, they must establish a colony. The colony contains what Motala calls ‘casts’.
“You have the queen, and usually there is only one queen per colony. [The queen] is the reproductive unit of the colony. She was largely responsible for the survival of the colony. She’s the one that will mate with a series of drones and very interestingly, she keeps that sperm throughout her reproductive life, so she never has to mate again.”
The drones are the male bees that have the responsibility of mating with the queen. She explains that mating is their only function and they have no other use.
“The worker bees are the ones we often see, the ones that fly around when we walk in the garden or in the park. And those worker bees are the older bees or the forage crops.”
Within the cast of female worker bees, Motala explains that there is a hierarchy based on the maturity of the bee.
“What needs to be done in the cupboards is distributed [according to maturity]. If the bee is younger, it would be responsible for feeding the brood. Other bees would be responsible for cleaning the hive and cleaning the cells. As they mature, there will be other bees responsible for guarding the hive, then they become responsible for foraging.”
The function of bees in the agricultural sector
Pollination occurs when a pollen grain moves from the anther (male part) of a flower to the stigma (female part). Bees, considered the main pollinator in the food chain, move pollen from flower to flower as they drink nectar from different flowers.
Motala explains that for commercial farmers, managing bee colonies is crucial. Today, bee colonies are under threat for a number of reasons, including fires, disease, and environmental degradation.
“Especially in the Western Cape, wildfires are one of the biggest fears we have and one of the things that has caused really big losses among bee populations. And these, more often than not, are from things that are beyond our control. Wildfires are a huge problem for colony losses.”
Lack of foraging is also another major problem where bee populations are declining, which has a knock-on effect on agricultural growth. If there are no flowers for the bees to forage from, there is no food for them, explains Motala.
“In addition, things like deforestation and removal of vegetation only remove large areas on which the bees forage. And then diseases such as American foulbrood disease, for example, are a major problem.”
Infrastructure required for pollination by bees
Motala says the type of beekeeping most commonly used for commercial farming in South Africa is called Langstroth Hives. She adds that while there are many varieties of hives, this one is popular because it is mobile, making it ideal for pollination.
“A good pollinator would consist of nine or ten removable frames because they make it easy to manipulate and control. And then those frames also have to be wired.”
Wiring the frames is important for the safety of the bees.
“Remember, your pollinator unit is a mobile unit, so you’re going to be transporting it. Those cones can get quite heavy especially when loaded with honey and then the wiring provides support that stabilizes the comb on the frame so it doesn’t break off in transit causing drowning and God forbid losing your queen in transit ‘ explains Motala.
“The cabinets must be easy to close, because don’t forget that you are transporting them. So on the route you don’t want bees coming out. So in that respect you want a good solid beehive, not one with holes and cracks all over the show.”
“Leaking” bees endanger the people around your vehicle, and it weakens the overall strength of your hive, Motala says. That is why it is important that the bees only escape when they are in the orchard.
She advises farmers who want to set up their own hives to register those hives with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALLRD). This, she says, helps with disease control and hive management.
“And so that registration number needs to be clearly marked on your hive, so that for whatever reason, if the owner of a hive is to be tracked, it’s obviously easy to track them.”
Motala’s advice for farmers and beekeepers is to gain as much knowledge as possible about bee biology and the social structure of bees.
“If you don’t know your bee biology, go do it now. Bee biology and social structure in the hive. I cannot underestimate its importance.”
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