Record spike in pollination demand in South Africa puts honeybees in danger
The demand for commercial pollination services in South Africa has reached “colossal” levels. Farmers are worried that beekeepers won’t keep up, but honeybee advocates have another concern in mind: the honeybees, which will be pushed to the brink to meet farmer needs. With an overdemand for and undersupply of pollination services, the existing operators could triple their annual output to take advantage of the burgeoning demand—but that doesn’t bode well for the busy bees putting in the work.
Pollination demand hits all-time high
“The demand for the pollination industry is colossal,” says John Thornton, who operates Garden Route Honey Producers, a honeybee queen rearing business in Port Elizabeth. Orders for Thornton’s queen-right colonies have been increasing at an astonishing rate, as commercial pollinators expand their apiaries to keep up.
Thornton explains that, due to shifts in the global food market, farmers countrywide are planting fruits, vegetables, and nuts — things like almonds, apples and onions — at unprecedented rates. In just the blueberry and macadamia industries — with the blueberry industry doubling in size every few years, and the macadamia industry seeing one of the fastest growth rates globally, rivaling Australia — the dependence on commercial pollination services will hit critical levels within the next few years.
“What’s in the ground today in the Western Cape will require an estimated doubling of our colony numbers in the next 2 to 5 years,” Thornton says. “And that’s just for trees and plants that are already in the ground.”
And while beekeeper numbers are rising, it’s primarily hobbyist beekeepers entering the industry, who don’t have the know-how — or the hive count — to operate as pollinators. The number of operating commercial beekeepers, on the other hand, appears to have only slightly increased over the last five years, if at all. And with an older generation of commercial beekeepers ageing out of the industry, farmers may see an increased scarcity of qualified pollinators just when the demand for them reaches its zenith.
Little labourers take the heat
With a limited number of pollinators in the game, the existing operators will likely hike up the number of annual services they’re willing to do. Here’s why that’s a problem: while the beekeepers will be working overtime as a result, they’re not the only ones taking the brunt of that work. Often the case in business, that increased labour is going to end up on the shoulders—or wings—of the little guys: the honeybees who are actually pollinating the fields.
Riaan Van Zyl, from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (Dalrrd), says that the higher demand for pollination could put South Africa’s already vulnerable bee species at risk.
“With more demand for services and signed contracts for pollination, but with limited commercial beekeepers in the industry, every commercial pollinator’s apiary is going to be under severe pressure, doing more pollination rounds per year — maybe three or four, rather than one or two,” Van Zyl says. “Each of those bees is going to be working three or four times harder every year, which will negatively impact their resilience against diseases. This may end up with beekeepers that will illegally use chemicals such as antibiotics to suppress diseases.
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