PRETORIA: In a worrying development which could threaten food production, South Africa’s traditionally tough honey bees—which had been resistant to disease—are now getting “sick of humans”, with the population of the crucial pollinators collapsing, experts say.
The seriousness of the global problem was highlighted when US President Barack Obama announced a plan last month to make millions of acres (hectares) of land more bee-friendly.
Loss of habitat, the increasing use of pesticides and growing vulnerability to disease are blamed by many critics for the plight of the honeybees.
The environmental group Greenpeace, which has launched a campaign to save the insects, says that bees pollinate 70 out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition.
In South Africa, an outbreak of the lethal bacterial disease foulbrood is spreading rapidly for the first time in recent history, says Mike Allsopp, honeybee specialist at the Agricultural Research Council in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape province.
“It’s exactly the same as around the world, the bees are sick of humans and the pressures and the stresses humans are putting on them,” said Allsopp.
“In the past they were less vulnerable because they weren’t stressed by intensive bee-keeping and pesticides and pollution.”
The foulbrood hitting South Africa is the American strain of the disease, he said. The country’s bees have previously coped with the European version.
The fear is that the disease could spread north through Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people work in small-scale bee farming, Allsopp said.
“It is a ticking time bomb. Every colony that I’ve looked at that has clinical foulbrood has died, and we’re not seeing colonies recover.”
When honeybee farmer Brendan Ashley-Cooper discovered foulbrood in his colonies in 2009, he knew the worst was yet to come.
“We thought we were going to have this major explosion of foulbrood,” said Ashley-Cooper, a 44-year-old based in Cape Town. “I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what the extent of it was. I was just worried about the bees.”
Six years later, the nightmare has come true for the third-generation beekeeper as hives die off.
The state of South Africa’s bees has never been as bad as it is now, he says.
Foulbrood attacks the bee larvae, leading to the collapse of the colony. It is spread when bees raid the dead colony, bringing back spore-infected honey to their colony, or by the importation of contaminated bee products.