Agriculture is South Africa’s biggest sector, with the deciduous fruit industry contributing over R14 billion every year. Phirdy Motala, beekeeper and managing member of the Farmyard Honey Factory, explains why the continued survival of bees is so crucial to this industry.
Motala, who worked as an academic before going into beekeeping, says the only type of bee used to pollinate commercial operations in South Africa is the commercial honeybee. The bee has two subspecies, called Apis Mellifera Scutellata and Apis Mellifera Capensis.
“The Apis mellifera scutellata occurs in the summer rainfall areas and then the Apis mellifera capensis, commonly known as the Cape honeybee, occurs in winter rainfall areas.”
She explains that the capensis follows more or less the geographic presence of fynbos, which reaches from across the Western Cape towards Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
Then, above that, there’s a region mostly determined as a hybrid region, where there’s a mix of capensis and scutellata bees. Then above that belt, there is the scutellata region.
“It’s important to understand that the crossing of breeds across those borders can lead to immense problems. Basically, what happens is that the capensis has the propensity to act as a parasite to the scutellata colonies, and eventually they die out. In short, those areas are very distinct, and in fact, in South Africa we’re not allowed to move bees across those borders.”
The structure of the colony
For bees to act as effective pollinators, they need to establish a colony. The colony contains what Motala refers to as “casts”.
“You have the queen, and there’s usually only one queen per colony. [The queen] is the reproductive unit of the colony. She largely responsible for the continuance of the colony. She is the one who will mate with a series of drones and quite interestingly, she retains that sperm over her reproductive lifetime, so she never, ever 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 do not have any other uses.
“The female worker bees are the ones that we see often, the ones flying around when we’re walking in the garden or in the park. And those female worker bees are the older bees or the forages.”
Within the female worker bee cast, Motala explains that there is a hierarchy based on the maturity of the bee.
“Whatever needs to be done inside the hives gets divided [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 the 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, which are considered the most important pollinator in the food chain, move the pollen from flower to flower when they drink nectar from various flowers.
Motala explains that for commercial farmers, having managed bee colonies is crucial. These days, bee colonies are under threat for a number of reasons, including fires, disease, and environmental degradation.
“In the Western Cape particularly, one of the biggest fears that we have and one of the things that really caused great losses among bee populations, are veld fires. And these, more often than not, are from things that are beyond our control. Veld fires are a huge problem to losing colonies.”
A lack of foraging is also another huge problem where bee populations drop, causing a domino effect on agricultural growth. When there are no flowers for the bees to forage from, there is no feed for them, Motala explains.
“Also, things like deforestation and removal of vegetation just remove large areas of foraging for the bees. And then diseases like the American foulbrood disease, for example, are a big problem.”
Infrastructure required for bee pollination
Motala says the type of beekeeping unit most commonly used for commercial farming in South Africa is called Langstroth Hives. She adds that while there are many types of hives, this one is popular because it is mobile, making it ideal for pollination.
“A good pollination unit would comprise of nine or ten removable frames because those make it easy to manipulate and monitor. And then those frames also need to be wired.”
Wiring of the frames is important for the safety of the bees.
“Remember that your pollination unit is a mobile unit, so you’re going to be transporting it. Those cones can get pretty heavy, particularly if they are honey laden, and then the wiring provides support that stabilises the comb onto the frame so that it doesn’t break off during transport, causing drowning and God forbid, loss of your queen during transportation,” Motala explains.
“The hives should be able to be easily sealed, because remember that you’re transporting them. So on the route, what you don’t want is for bees to get out. So in that respect, you want a good solid hive, not one with holes and cracks all over the show.”
“Leaking” bees puts the people around your vehicle in danger, and it weakens the overall force of your hive, says Motala. This is why it is important that the bees do not escape until 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, aids with disease control and hive management.
“And so that registration number must be clearly marked in your hive so that for any reason, if the owner of a hive needs to be tracked, then it’s obviously easy to track them.”
Motala’s advice for farmers and beekeepers is to get as much knowledge about bee biology and bee social structure as possible.
“If you don’t know your bee biology, go and do it now. Bee biology and social structure within the hive. I cannot underestimate the importance of it.”
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