Bees need trees, and trees need bees – especially Eucalyptus trees which offer excellent forage for these tiny creatures that provide crucial pollination services to a third of the world’s crops.
According to Mike Allsop, head of honeybee research at the Agricultural Research Council, Eucalyptus plantations in South Africa play a crucial role in providing forage for bees.
“In KZN, Mpumalanga and Limpopo gum plantations are absolutely crucial to beekeepers – and to all the crop industries depending on these bee colonies for pollination.”
Mike says that E. grandis and E. camuldulensis are the best eucalypt species for honeybees because of the abundance of flowers that they produce, and also the timing of the flowering.
“These gum sites are absolutely critical for beekeepers to catch bees, and also to sustain them in periods when there is very little other food available,” he said.
However alarm bells are ringing as bee populations around the world are dwindling, and South Africa has not been spared. Pests and diseases, pollution, the degradation and conversion of natural landscapes and the reduction of wild forage are all taking their toll on bee populations. The irresponsible use of chemicals and insecticides is also a problem as bees are highly sensitive to these substances.
"While accurate data is limited, best estimates show that the demand for commercial honeybee pollination is set to increase by 15-20% per year in South Africa,” says Mike. “When you consider that there are already not enough managed honeybees to meet SA's pollination demands, coupled with the fact that the amount of foraging territory available to honeybees continues to dwindle, it's easy to see why this spells trouble for not only our honeybees, but our food supply chain and the complex web of life that bees support."
As demand for pollination services continues to grow, it's clear that efforts to sustain honeybee colonies need to be intensified across a broad front. This includes the planting of cover crops in vineyards and other non-pollination dependent crops, the restoration of fallow land, the establishment of woodlots, and the planting of bee-friendly forages on verges, gardens and parks across the country.
However Mike points out that all these actions will only be enough if we're also able to protect and sustain two fundamental enablers of honeybee colony numbers: the canola fields of the Cape in the late summer and the winter-flowering commercial forestry Eucalyptus of the Lowveld and KZN. These are essential to the trapping and building of honeybee colonies prior to pollination season, allowing beekeepers to service the spring pollination needs of a wide range of fruit, nut and vegetable crops.
In the past plantation owners in South Africa tended to try and keep bees out of their plantations because informal honey hunters using fire to smoke out wild bees nesting in old stumps are a high fire risk. But in recent years growers have tended to take a more pro-active approach by launching initiatives to provide training and equipment to local communities to promote responsible beekeeping. This approach is a win-win as it creates income earning opportunities for local communities – and reduces the fire risks.
Some of the bigger forestry companies have taken it a step further, establishing partnerships with beekeeping businesses by providing safe access to their Eucalyptus plantations. Sappi Forests, one of the biggest growers of Eucalyptus species across Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, has forged partnerships with a number of beekeeping businesses to provide forage for bees. One such partnership is in the Lowveld of Mpumalanga with Bee Naked Honey Farms. Bee Naked is a producer of raw local honey (distributed under the Eat Naked brand) and provider of pollination services to local farmers in the region.
Bee Naked Honey Farm place hives in Sappi’s plantations, thus boosting bee populations for honey production as well as providing pollination services to crop farmers.
Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, macadamia nuts, avocados, litchis, apples, pears, plums, apricots, almonds, cherries, melons, pumpkins, butternuts, kiwis, onion seed, sunflower seed, carrot and vegetable seed are just a few of the many crops that are pollinated by bees.
Besides providing an essential boost to our country's bee population, the programme has also created work for people from the local Bushbuckridge community in Mpumalanga. Bee Naked Honey Farms currently employs 14 people, all of whom were recruited from the local community.