Bees are not THE threat; they are UNDER threat

1. Introduction

Our beautiful dynamic South African country is endowed with diverse landscapes attracting intensified plant and pollinator populations, which is unequalled in the world. A healthy interaction between plant and pollinator is pivotal to maintaining both plant and pollinator communities. Bees, as one of the most common and important of pollinators, play a vital role in maintaining this interaction and ensuring that pollen is transferred around, and consequently new plant life is sustained.

This article will explore pollination and its importance in more depth. Moreover, it will take a look at what role bees play as pollinators in the pollination process. Lastly, it will examine the decline of pollination, its causes and some recommended solutions.

2. What is pollination and why is it important

Pollination is the transfer of pollen grains from a flower’s male anther to another flower’s female’s stigma. The purpose of this process is to fertilize plants, thereby producing new seeds and allowing more plants to grow. Even though there are some flowers that are able to develop seeds from self-pollinations, other plants and flowers require help through cross-pollination and a pollinator like a bee, butterfly or a bat, to carry pollen to other flowering plants.
Pollination is vital for our natural ecosystem as well as for artificial production environments in that it directly effects plant growth and the growth of crops. From an agricultural perspective, roughly a third of food consumed by humanity results from animal-pollinated plants. Should something cause crop pollinator populations to decline, the devastating impact on crop production will immediately be felt.

3. Bees as pollinators

It has been estimated that there are 25000 bee species worldwide, each playing an independent and indispensable role.Bees are considered to be the most common and most important biotic pollinators of angiosperms. The reason that they are so imperative is that they are operatively able to gather pollen for themselves and their larvae. Bees are also essential agents in the pollination process of wildflowers and crops. In northern temperate regions of our planet, like the U.K for example, bumblebees provide almost half of all the pollination. In South Africa the highest levels of plant and bee diversity is found in regions with predominant rainfall.

4. The decline of pollination

Certain areas of the world, such as central Europe, the United States of America and Mexico, have been experiencing a significant decline in honeybee populations, the most well-known of which is the Apis mellifera. Factors such as the effects of climate change, a decline in genetic bee colony variation, parasites, infections, the limitations on bee trade, and the use of insecticide on crops can all play a role on this decline.

 4.1. Causes

4.1.1. Pesticides

A common pesticide used by farmers and in other agricultural use, is a chemical called neonicotinoid. Neonicotinoids re a class of insecticides with lethal and instant effects, widely used in gardens on plants as well as on agricultural crops in the control of pests. When exposed to this toxic chemical, some species suffer severe consequences, such as impaired smell and memory, reduced foraging, difficulty in flying, curbed procreation and an increased susceptibility to diseases. Neonicotinoids first dissolve in water, then steadily work their way into waterways by means of agricultural runoff. The flowers then soak up the water, exposing its stems, leaves, pollen and nectar to the toxins.

Studies show that queen bees that are exposed to this pesticide, are 26% less likely to lay eggs, reproduce, or found a colony. This results in a significant decline in the bee population and even extinction of wild bee populations

4.1.2. Bacteria

A very common and dangerous bacterium is killing millions of bees is the American foulbrood disease. This serious disease is ingested by larvae in bee colonies and the bacteria grow until they kills the hosts. The hives are left with nothing but corpses carrying millions of infected spores. In due time new bees with occupy the hive and undergo the same fate.
Thus far, South Africa’s honeybee population has been rather resilient to a lot of diseases and outbreaks that are likely to affect our bee population. However, this view seems to be rapidly changing. The deadly American foulbrood outbreak hit South Africa in 2015 and caused bee colonies in the Western Cape to be decreased by 40%. Big producers, such as the United States, commonly treat this disease with antibiotics and the same practice can be followed here in order to keep the disease from spreading.

5. Solutions

5.1. Manage pollination

Currently, the only pollinator being managed in South Africa, is the native honey bee. Managing honeybee colonies carries several advantages and, unfortunately, some disadvantages too. The prime advantage extends to the foraging habits of the honeybees. This habit enables them to pollinate various crop species. The disadvantage to their transport capabilities is that they gather pollen which they then moisturise with nectar and honey and store on their hind legs, resulting in the restricted availability of pollen available for pollination. Moreover, they are highly vulnerable to pesticides, diseases and parasites – posing a threat to their commercial use and requiring advanced management strategies. It is for this reason that a honeybee is considered one of the lesser pollinators among the bee species and it is vital that other management options using native species be explored.

5.2. Support the local and organically produced

Organically produced fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of pesticides, which is advantageous for the environment and the bee population. Even though they are a bit more expensive, it is recommended to rather buy organic produce as the extra cash contributes to the health of the bees and better working conditions for the farmers.

It is also advocated that one buys humane and locally produced honey. When purchasing honey from hives on small and local farms, it contributes towards local business and supports the fair treatment of bees.

5.3. Make your own garden

A home-made garden filled with bee-friendly plants and flowers can go a long way. This will help feed the local bees, especially in urban areas where there are little to no plants and flowers to pollinate, and finally, the biodiversity of plants will increase. Create a beautiful fluorescent garden, it should be easy to encourage your peers to follow you lead.

5.4.Collaborate with one another

Building up a complete new beekeeping-farm can take time and a lot of patience. Sometimes it would just be more effective to take over an existing site. In this regard it is important for farmers and beekeepers to collaborate and work together, not only in support of a build-up and insurance that it is done so properly, but also to communicate with one another on what insecticides will and will not be applied.
5.5.Urge your government for legislation
Specific and stringent legislation is required to prevent a further decline in our bee population. It is important for the government to step in and enact legislation that will protect the bees, test honey and imported honey products, to have educated bee-keepers and help them the bees to be managed efficiently. It is our duty to urge the local municipalities to do so.

6.Conclusion

The significant role that bees play in our environment cannot be overstated. Neither can their futility.As populations are ever increasing, so is the need for crops and the exhaustion of natural resources, and finally climate change spirals out of control – all contributing factors leading to smaller bee populations. However, should bees not be properly maintained, land not properly maintained, beekeepers not properly educated and pesticides not properly used, our bee populations may cease to exist altogether.

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