Farmers unite to solve bee deaths

Dead bees piled up outside the hive.

Fipronil, a pesticide that was banned in the European Union from September last year but still used on Constantia wine farms, has been linked to a mass bee die-off in the Constantia valley.

Samples of dead bees sent to a Westlake lab have tested positive for fipronil, according to vice chairman of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association, Brendan Ashley-Cooper.

Hearshaw and Kinnes Analytical Laboratory tested the samples last week from dead bees Mr Ashley-Cooper, a commercial bee keeper, had found in front of his hives.

Samples are to be tested from other beekeepers’ hives to find the epicentre of the die-off.

Carryn Wiltshire, spokesperson for the Constantia Wine Route, said fipronil was widely used across the industry, including Constantia.

“Fipronil has been in use for the past eight years, with no damaging effect to beehives. The Constantia farmers have immediately terminated the use of fipronil after beekeepers suspected this product to be harmful. All role-players of the industry are cooperating in finding the possible cause as well as necessary solutions,” she said.

Ms Wiltshire said agricultural advisers and suppliers of agricultural products, together with their technical researchers, would join a meeting scheduled for Friday December 7.

“We’d, however, like to stress that this is not only a Constantia problem and not a pure wine-industry-related problem. Areas where die-off of bees occurred is widespread,” said Ms Wiltshire.

Mr Ashley-Cooper estimated he had lost 2.5 million bees in about 100 of his bee hives on the farm. Oude Raapkraal in Steenberg, (“Poisoned colonies a loss for beekeepers,” Bulletin November 22).

Commercial beekeeper Chris Nicklin, who has beehives in the Constantia valley said he suspected wine farmers had painted their vines with Regent, one of fipronil’s trade names, and molasses to kill ants. The ants take the slow-acting poison to the nest where it kills the entire colony.

Fipronil is a white powder chemical with a mouldy odour. It is used to control ants, beetles, cockroaches, fleas, ticks, termites, mole crickets, thrips, rootworms, weevils, and other insects.

DanielSchietekat,oftheWine and Spirit Board and manager of the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) scheme, said fipronil was not banned in South Africa and was registered for use in orchards and vineyards, but there were strict regulations governing how it was used.

For example it can be used with white sugar as a bait but not molasses, which has an odour that attracts bees from a distance. Flouting the regulations could see a farm losing its IPW membership.

Compliance with the IPW scheme, according to Mr Schietekat, gave buyers a guarantee that grape production was done with due consideration of the environment, and that the wine was produced in an environmentally responsible manner and is safe for the consumer.

Lars Maack, of Buitenverwachting, said research funded by the European Union and co-ordinated by the French Ministry of Agriculture for French bee-keeping, found that bees treated with fipronil showed no extra mortality, but suffered damaging effects to their foraging behaviour.

A meeting was held on Friday November 23 and attended by all farmers in the valley, beekeepers and councillor Liz Brunette.

Mike Allsopp, of the Honeybee Research Section of the Agricultural Research Council, said the poisoning was a symptom of a greater problem.

“This is not the first time that bee populations in the Cape Peninsula are under threat. Three years ago, we lost almost half of the bees in the Western Cape to foulbrood disease. Our demand for bees for commercial pollination has increased exponentially, and yet our capacity to sustain healthy bee populations is decreasing because we are transforming the land for human habitation. Beekeepers are increasingly challenged in finding places to sustainably keep bees, and then they get exposed to overcrowding, food shortages and pesticides,” said Mr Allsopp.

He said South Africa honey production had dropped by 40% over the past 20 years. Many commercial beekeepers had given up on honey production, and others had moved to other countries to continue their work.

But it was not only about honey production, as beekeepers had found the demand on bees for pollination was skyrocketing and becoming the equivalent of factory farming.