Clearing up misunderstandings

Jenny Cullinan, Simon’s Town

I think columnist Fiona Chisholm may have misunderstood my “passionate plea” for bees the other evening (“Fynbos ‘overrated as bee forage’”, Constantiaberg Bulletin, August 4). I would like to take this opportunity to clear up some of these misunderstandings.

I am not a beekeeper involved with honey production and pollination services. I am part of a team researching bees in their natural (wild) habitat. Why is it important to do this one may ask? Human beings are failing bees globally in the agricultural (commercial honeybee farming) sector. The way we have farmed bees is truly very removed from the way honeybees are in the wild. The results of this are massive bee deaths.

Bees have been around on this planet for over 135 million years, they have survived an ice age and outlived the dinosaurs, but in the short time that humans have worked with bees we have managed to put them under extreme pressure causing this group of insects to start to collapse worldwide. In SA we are extremely fortunate in that 90 percent of our honeybees still live in the wild; understanding what makes our African races of honeybee strong and resilient to many bee diseases lies in this. If we safeguard our bees in the wild we should be able to protect our honeybees from massive collapse which will set us apart from the rest of the world.

This is such a critical issue; saving bees in their wild habitat should be a governmental priority as this will ensure that we have honeybees for our future.

In South Africa, farmers are still able to catch reproductive swarms from the wild to put in their hives, enabling healthy, natural colonies. This is unlike much of the rest of the world where less than five percent of bees live naturally in the wild and most have been hybridised, leading to all sorts of weaknesses.

These swarms of colonies, reproducing and moving out of protected areas, are then used for agricultural purposes.

If we put our wild honeybees under pressure, by removing their natural habitats and vital fynbos ecosystems, this would mean we would put our entire food production and fynbos ecology at risk.

Bee conservation in SA is vital. The commercial beekeeper you interviewed is correct, in that placing hives in fynbos areas is unwise, as it not only yields small amounts of excess honey, but puts all wild bee colonies and all other pollinators (birds, butterflies, beetles, solitary bees, wasps, flies etc.) under pressure.

Ms Chisholm’s relative having brought in 15 hives on the edge of Lower Tokai, means the introduction of an extra 750 000 pollinators that are competing for forage and possibly causing the demise of already existing pollinator species. Beekeepers should be planting bee forage for their bees and not expecting conservation areas to provide for their commercial needs.

Fynbos is an important ecosystem for the Cape honeybee; the plant diversity and the high medicinal value of fynbos ensures healthy bees. Honeybees need a variety of pollens and nectar to keep their immune systems healthy. SANParks and other wildlife agents understand the importance of this finely-tuned ecosystem and the need to preserve it.

Now is the time to stand up and be counted to ensure that we do not make the mistake of putting honey production and greed before logic. Save our bees in the wild and we may just save ourselves.