The April edition of FarmBiz featured an overview of the threats that bees currently face worldwide. These threats range from chemical spray applications and climate change to pests, diseases and habitat loss. In this article we focus on what farmers, beekeepers and members of the general public can do to help bees maintain healthy populations.

Bee habitats

One of the easiest and most important ways to help bees is to provide them with a habitat in which suitable forage plants grow. A primary threat to bees is the loss of suitable foraging habitat due to climate change and urbanisation. Urban landowners can establish gardens planted with flowers that are desirable sources of forage for honeybees. This is a simple act that can go a long way towards helping bees access the nutrition they need to maintain healthy diets, build strong immune systems and ward off disease.

Forage sources

Eucalyptus trees, agricultural crops, indigenous trees and shrubs, roadside weeds and planted urban gardens provide the pollen (protein) and nectar (carbohydrates) that honeybees need to build strong, healthy colonies.

Eucalypts, commonly known as gum trees, have their origin in Australia, and are a good forage source for bees since these trees provide a consistent, year-round source of forage as the various gums flower at different times of the year. Of the roughly 85 species introduced to South Africa, six species are listed as invaders.

The booklet Gums and Bees: A roadmap for landowners in South Africa, published by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), is a useful guide for landowners who want to protect or grow forage resources for honeybees. The booklet, which can help readers identify invasive and non-invasive species of eucalypts, is available online.

Eucalypt control is managed by the Alien and Invasive Species Regulations promulgated under the Biodiversity Act, 2004 (Act 10 of 2004). Eucalypts listed as invaders must be removed if they are not in the correct place. According to SANBI, the regulations state that Eucalyptus trees are permitted in the Nama Karoo, the Succulent Karoo or in desert biomes. Eucalypts are permitted on cultivated land at least 50m away from virgin veld or uncultivated land; they are also allowed within 50m of the main house on a farm and in existing formal plantations.

Eucalypts must be taken out of riparian areas within 32m of a river, lake, dam or wetland. They are notoriously ‘thirsty’ plants with a strong water uptake capacity. Listed gums must also be removed from protected areas such as nature reserves, catchment areas or national parks.

Agricultural cropland

Farmers may consider planting lavender and basil as complementary crop plants, or fodder crops such as clover or lucerne, as forage sources for bees. Leguminous crops, which are suitable in crop rotation, provide an excellent source of honeybee forage.

Blooming strips can be planted adjacent to the primary agricultural crop to provide bees with additional forage. Some agricultural crops, such as canola, sunflower and citrus, are good forage resources for honeybees during flowering, and farmers could consider allowing beekeepers access to these croplands.

Local beekeeping associations are listed on the South African Bee Industry Organisation’s website, www.sabio.org.za. Flowering weeds, including wild radish and Cosmos, that grow among agricultural crops and attract bees should not be sprayed or unnecessarily removed.

Indigenous plants

Naturally, indigenous trees and shrubs are a great source of forage for bees. Consider planting indigenous bee-friendly plants when gardening, planting windbreaks, or rehabilitating land. Plant species suited to the area, preferably indigenous species, that flower at different times of the year.

SANBI lists the following plants as beneficial for bees:

  • Fynbos plants from the Ericaceae (Erica), Proteaceae (protea), Rutaceae (Buchu) and Mesembryanthemaceae (vygie) families.  
  • Aloes, such as the Aloe greatheadii.
  • Indigenous acacias, such as the Vachellia karroo, commonly known as the Sweet thorn, and Ziziphus mucronata, a member of the Rhamnaceae family, commonly known as the Buffalo thorn. These two trees provide important winter forage for honeybees in the northern regions of South Africa.

Visit www.sanbi.org for more bee-friendly plants.  

Correct chemical application

Honeybees will visit any flowering crop, especially canola, lucerne, sunflowers and citrus. This must be taken into account when spraying chemicals. It is of the utmost importance that growers who use chemicals read the accompanying literature and follow the instructions carefully. It is a good idea for growers to discuss their spray regimes with beekeepers.

Bayer is involved in extensive testing, risk assessment and stewardship measures to avoid and reduce the risk to bees through chemical use, as part of a programme to help take care of honeybees. According to Bayer, crop protection products are among the most heavily regulated inputs in the agricultural industry. These products are subjected to lengthy and rigorous testing to meet the highest standards of safety required for the environment, its plants and wildlife.

Manage colony health

Disease management is a significant concern to beekeepers and plays an important role in keeping bee populations disease-free.

Beekeepers can spread pests and diseases, such as American foulbrood and the Varroa mite, by moving beekeeping equipment, such as frames or supers, from contaminated hives to healthy ones. There are regulations in place in South Africa to help with the management and control of important bee diseases.

The Agricultural Pests Act, 1983 (Act 36 of 1983) requires all beekeepers to register with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) every year. This registration is necessary to keep a record of all beekeeping activities and check that bee colonies are responsibly managed in a manner that prevents and controls bee diseases. Bee removal services must also register with DAFF annually. The Act restricts the importation of used beekeeping equipment to prevent the spread of pests and diseases. Importing beekeeping equipment requires permits.

Finding the balance

In 2011, Bayer launched the Bee Care Programme with the aim of finding some balance between helping farmers expand food production units while protecting and contributing to the health, safety and diversity of pollinators. According to information provided by Bayer on www.beecare.bayer.com, contemporary landscapes often lack the all-season foraging supply that honeybees need, and the habitats required for suitable nesting sites.

Insect hotels offer wild bees and other insects a safe place to nest. (Photo by Bayer)

Croplands are generally too densely vegetated, too shady and too cold for bees to build their nests. The Bee Care Programme suggests that farmers manage landscapes in ways that support abundant populations of wild insects. For example, sandbanks and overgrown or uncut grassy areas provide ideal places for certain wild bee populations to build their nests. Insect hotels can be put up as suitable places for nest building and breeding. Wood piles, tree trunks and fallen branches are also ideal­ sites for nests.

Bees are vital to the future of our food supply. Farmers and urban dwellers alike can make a difference to the maintenance of plant diversity and the supply of quality forage that will keep honeybee populations thriving and sustainable. – Ursula Human, FarmBiz