Poisoned colonies a loss for beekeepers

* Chris Nicklin with a handful of dead bees in front of some hives off Klein Constantia Road.

Beekeepers are distraught at having lost a third of their income after colonies in the Constantia valley were wiped out.

BrendanAshley-Cooper,a beekeeper at Oude Raapkraal in Westlake, who is vice-chairman of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association, said he received a call about dead bees in front of a hive near Nova Constantia on Saturday November 10.

Three days later he received another call from a beekeeper in Tokai. “Same thing, thousands of dead bees in front of his hives. I went to inspect two sites, Tokai and Bergvliet, and also found thousands of dead bees in front of many of my hives,” said Mr Ashley-Cooper.

Lawrence Woollam of Zandvlei found a stinking mass of dead bees and deadly silence at his apiary in Soetvlei, Constantia Hills, on Tuesday November 20.

In one of the hives only the queen survived. “She is fed by attendant bees, obviously they died before passing it on to her…she will most likely perish from hunger or cold because there are no bees to feed or clean her,” he said.

Another beekeeper who is finding dead bees in front of his hives is Chris Nicklin of Kenilworth. He has bees in areas around Brommersvlei and Klein Constantia roads.

Mr Nicklin said one theory for the mass deaths is that farmers have sprayed their crops with pesticides that contain a mixture of ant poison and molasses.

He said the sweet taste of the concoction attracts the bees who become infected and carry the poison back to their hives. Signs of bees having been poisoned are that they appear to be disoriented and literally stumble around until they die.

Mr Ashley-Cooper took dead bee samples to Hearshaw and Kinnes Analytical Laboratory in Westlake to have them analysed.

“We believe that the only cause can be agricultural poisoning to have killed so many bees so quickly, drastically, instantly. We’ve spoken to the wine farmers. They are all taking this situation very seriously and have a meeting set up for Friday,” said Mr Ashley-Cooper.

Groot Constantia CEO Jean Naude confirmed this, saying all the wine farms in Constantia were giving their full co-operation to try and find the root of the problem regardless of whether it is caused by farming practices or any other cause.

Lars Maack of Buitenverwachting said their ant control regime had been in place for the past 10 years. And the wild hive in the oak tree on his farm is still intact and there are no dead bees in the vicinity.

Mr Maack said it was puzzling that only some hives were affected while others appear to be healthy and that hives in Diep River and Bergvliet are also affected. “Bees tend to stick to a radius of around 4km to 5km and bee activity in the vineyards is generally low,” he said.

Meanwhile, beekeepers are concerned that other bees will be affected by the same poison.

Mr Woollam said brood patterns were looking “spectacular” this year after bees had survived fire, drought and vandalism.

“Bees live on blossom. They know when the weather will be good. They don’t produce babies unless they know there will be enough food,” said Mr Woollam.

He is concerned about the spin-off on biodiversity. “Honeybees are apex pollinators, and through this role, promote and safeguard biodiversity – frogs, birds, crickets and other wildlife.”

He said the valley was also home to a substantial number of feral honeybee colonies, and they would also be affected.

Mr Woollam relocates unwanted swarms of bee nests. He said that in the Western Cape, around half of commercial beekeepers’ revenue came from pollination services, with the remaining half from the production of honey and other bee related products.

Mr Nicklin said the national Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) had also stepped in.

“Riaan van Zyl of DAFF’s inspection services has requested local beekeepers to provide him with samples of dead bees for testing,” he said.

Mike Allsopp of the Honeybee Research Section of the Agricultural Research Council in Somerset West is concerned about the “noise” around the issue.

He has asked Mr Ashley-Cooper to provide details around how many managed colonies had been killed, where these kills took place, any knowledge of loss of wild colonies and the lab results.

Loren Pavitt of CapeNature said this was not something they monitor but dead bees outside a hive could be a natural occurrence as the live worker bees do remove the naturally dead and dying bees from the hive. The worker bees usually have a short lifespan of roughly three weeks. But this theory cannot be confirmed without viewing the photographs and inspecting the area.

Mayco member for transport and urban development Felicity Purchase said the City’s Biodiversity Management department regulated and managed the pesticides and herbicides used by its contractors. Compliance is checked and monitored regularly. The use of herbicides is kept to a minimum to limit its impact on the environment.

She said the most important action from the City’s Biodiversity Management unit was to make sure that they protect and manage wild bee populations.

Mayco member for safety, security and social services JP Smith said the City was in compliance with national legislation regulating the use of herbicides and pesticides through DAFF.

He said the Recreation and Parks department did not spray parks with products containing glyphosate as these products are non-selective weed killers. Their use is limited only to hard surfaces such as roads and pavements. Contractor tender specifications are also clear that all work performed must be performed under the supervision of qualified pest control operators. The City’s environmental health unit did not monitor the ambient air for levels of pesticide, said Mr Smith.

Mr Ashley-Cooper said the lab results should be available today, Thursday November 22. The Bulletin called the laboratory and asked Sue Peall who is running the tests for the results. She said she could only give them to the person who provided the samples, Mr Ashley-Cooper. The Bulletin also sent inquiries to Mike Miles of the SA Bee Industry Organisation and DAFF.