To bee or not to bee: South African beekeepers face tough odds

Chinese imports, too few trees, not much government support: it’s hard to get a buzz out of your hive these days

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The Western Cape’s unique Capensis bee is the only honeybee worldwide that can reproduce without a queen. Photo: Heike Evans

  • Honey has been eaten and traded in South Africa for thousands of years.
  • South African bees have not been as badly affected as those in other countries by pesticides and over-use.
  • But beekeepers here are battling cheap Chinese imports, a lack of training, and now a shortage of forage for the bees.
  • The cutting down of aliens like eucalyptus trees has removed a significant source of food for them.

Humans love honey. We spread it on things. We put it in our tea. The craftiest of us use it to make mead. Human love for honey goes way back – all the way to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, Assyrians, and so on. One of the earliest names for Pharaohs was “Bee King”. Beekeepers have been moving hives from field to field for pollination for over 5 000 years, but bee culture has been a thing since 4500BC.

That’s true in South Africa too: research has pointed to Khoi San honey consumption dating back almost 40,000 years, and several early Khoi San cave paintings depict bees and honey harvesting. The San living close to Oudtshoorn are thought to have traveled hundreds of kilometers with honey stored in sacks of springbok skin to trade honey with the Xhosa people. During the course of that trek, the sugar in the honey would ferment and create iqhilika, or the popular Eastern Cape honey brew. Outeniqua, in English, directly translates to “they who bear honey”.

When 15 years ago bees started disappearing by the millions, conservationists worldwide began a crusade to save the honeybee.

In the winter of 2006, beekeepers in America started reporting massive hive losses. Their colonies were dying, but there was something remarkably different to normal pesticide poisoning or disease: no dead bee bodies. The worker bees were just up and leaving, abandoning the queen and bee babies to fend for themselves, causing the hive to quickly die off. Colony Collapse Disorder was born, and soon beekeepers around the world were signalling red alert.

News of the crisis swarmed mainstream media. Beekeepers and animal rights advocates blamed farming pesticides like neonicotinoids, a nicotine-based insecticide that interferes with a honeybee’s navigation so that it can’t find its way home to the hive. Farmers and the chemical pesticide lobby blamed parasites like the Varroa destructor, a honeybee parasite that spread globally in the late 20th century. Climate change crusaders blamed increasingly volatile weather. But experts like Mike Allsop argue that the real problem is the beekeepers themselves.

If pesticides and parasites are responsible, says Allsop, “why is it that Europe has banned pesticides and bee losses have continued? Why are parasites such a major issue there and not elsewhere? Because of the practices of the beekeepers themselves.”

Overworked bees

To understand this, we need to know a bit about bee history. In ancient times, there were only two types of honeybees: the European honeybee and the African honeybee. The Sahara Desert was – and for the most part, remains – a natural barrier between the two. Because of their calm temperament and easy maintenance (according to one local beekeeper, the European bee is a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 for aggression while the African bee is a 9), European honeybees became the primary honeybee for beekeeping worldwide. But breeding practices and mismanagement have made these bees very susceptible to disease.

European breeders “have turned their bees into little poodles,” Allsop says. “Bees are being bred for passiveness and against defensive behaviour, stinging, and swarming. They can’t look after themselves.”

When diseases or parasites hit, best practice is that the infected hive should be quarantined or destroyed. But beekeepers in America and Europe, in an attempt to save a buck, are keeping their hives alive rather than burning or destroying them. Keeping these colonies active means the bees aren’t developing a tolerance to pesticides and parasites over time. Allsop says this is like purebred dog breeds versus “street” dogs, who tend to be much hardier.

Disease is still an issue with descendants of the African bee. Outbreaks of honeybee diseases aren’t uncommon, and the Varroa destructor pest has been a consistent problem since entering the Western Cape in the 1990s.

But the reason that death rates are higher elsewhere is the practice of overworking the bees for commercial pollination and honey production.

Many American beekeepers make top dollar sending their hives around the country to pollinate during various growing seasons, so some hives spend their whole lives on truck beds, being hauled thousands of miles. Without time to recuperate, the honeybees are sometimes too weak to pollinate, so the farmers give them sugar water to keep them buzzing about. Overworked, stressed out, and with poor nutrition from sugar water and less diverse food sources due to monoculture farming, the bees are more susceptible to diseases, parasites, and the like.

Thankfully, says Allsop, in South Africa beekeepers don’t typically push their bees to the limit. But the local bee industry is still at risk, though for a different reason: forage.

Paul van Rensburg is a beekeeper in Somerset West with 60 hives. He explains, “Because the fynbos flowering season is so restricted, there are no indigenous flowers after November. So we rely a lot on eucalyptus trees and other non-native species.” But, unfortunately for our bees, the government’s Working for Water initiative is actively removing alien foliage countrywide. That includes the eucalyptus, which bees feed on to produce almost 70% of South Africa’s honey.

This is particularly a problem for the country’s many wild bee species. Honeybees are only one in a thousand species of bees we have here. Because honeybees are domesticated and protected by beekeepers, experts like Allsop stress that they’re not at risk. Wild bees, on the other hand, are at risk, as they are being forced to compete with the protected honeybees for forage, which is becoming even more scarce as a result of urbanisation and habitat loss. And with eucalyptus rapidly disappearing, that competition is becoming fierce.

An ageing industry

All around the world, bee culture has taken flight. There are honey festivals, wildly popular Facebook groups, beekeeping classes at many major universities, and even a World Bee Day, 20 May, to celebrate the birthday of Anton Janša, one of the first modern teachers of apiculture. In “apitourism” hotspots like Slovenia, you can get honey massages or visit apitherapy chambers, where you can breathe beehive aromas said to help with asthma and respiratory problems. [There’s no evidence these work. - editor]

Technology is keeping up. Enthusiasts can submit their bee sightings to bee research on an app called Bumble Bee Watch. The Flow Hive, a “honey on tap” beehive system invented by a father-son pair in Australia, broke a record on crowdfunding site Indiegogo for the highest earning campaign in the site’s history, with over US$10 million raised.

But in South Africa, our beekeeping numbers are on a steady decline. The industry is ageing, and few young commercial beekeepers are entering. Training infrastructure in South Africa is minimal.

Alesha Otto is a graphic designer from Cape Town who started a bee sanctuary on her farm called Bijenbos Bee Sanctuary. Trained by a beekeeper in Malmesbury, Alesha says she has been shocked by the lack of beekeeping resources available from the government. Unlike Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya, all of which are major honey exporters and have extensive government resources for the honeybee industry, resources for people starting out in South Africa are scarce.

“There’s so much to learn and such little resources here,” Otto said. “There’s no formal, standardised education.”

The training that does exist is expensive. Hobbyist Joshua Nel, who has 15 hives on his family’s small holding in St. Lowry’s Pass, used YouTube. “I’m not going to pay R2,000 for something I can find on YouTube for free,” he said. He even imported his beekeeping suit from China, because the local options were more expensive and harder to come by.

Chris Oosthuizen became interested in the honeybee industry last February and spent over 400 hours on YouTube during the Covid-19 shutdown training himself in beekeeping. He is completely self-taught from YouTube videos and from Beekeeping in South Africa by M. J. Johannesmeier. He has bought more than 200 empty hives and begun using a combination of lemongrass essential oil, beeswax, propolis, and olive oil to attract swarms. He caught his first one in just four days.

Oosthuizen recently started Honey Bee Heroes, an adopt-a-hive program where patrons can pay R1,500 and have a new hive dedicated to them. Patrons get twelve bottles of pure fynbos honey, cost-price honey when their hive starts producing, and a free beekeeping experience where they can suit up with Oosthuizen on the farm.

For many hobbyists like Oosthuizen, it’s all about conservation, not profit. He has no plans to move his bees for pollination or put any undue stress on them. He will extract honey, but only from strong hives at appropriate times, when it won’t be of detriment to the bees.

“It’s fundamentally financially flawed, but that’s conservation for you,” he says.

Chinese imports

South Africa used to produce enough honey to meet local demand, but as supply fell and demand skyrocketed, cheap imports have filled the gap.

China has been flooding markets worldwide with “natural” honey imports. The problem is that most of the honey coming out of China is filtered, heated, and with many additives – and sometimes, it isn’t even honey at all, but a mix of corn and rice sweeteners. Countries like the United States have put massive tariffs on Chinese honey imports, but Chinese suppliers have found a way to get around this: by shipping through other countries and slapping on a new label with that country’s name on it, in a scheme colloquially called “Honey Laundering,” or transshipment.

Chinese honey dumping is happening here, too. Some brands will even promote themselves as “a product of South Africa” but, if you read the fine print, the honey actually comes from China. It’s just bottled here. With Chinese honey prices so low, South African farmers can’t compete and many local beekeepers are getting out of the business.

“We’re not protecting our own,” Oosthuizen says.

He says consumers need to be educated about the products they’re buying. Consumers want to pay R55 per bottle, but R200 should still be considered cheap for quality local honey. “Our honey is way undervalued. It’s like bread. You’re paying threefold for artisan bread because it’s better for you and it’s less refined. The same goes for honey.”

Will it all bee all right?

Beekeeping in South Africa is a predominately old, white, and Afrikaner gig. The government has made attempts to capitalise on beekeeping’s potential for income generation in impoverished communities with programmes like its Beekeeping for Poverty Relief Programme. But so far, those attempts have overwhelmingly failed.

Why’s that? Partly, it’s a problem of land, Oosthuizen says. For urban or township populations, you need sites for hives: enough land, and enough greenery on it for the bees to eat. In rural communities, there is the space, but the problem is getting that honey to market. Those are major hurdles, and that’s not taking into account startup costs. It’s relatively cost-effective to start beekeeping, but the challenge is scale. “To generate a decent income, you need ten hives,” says Oosthuizen. “With that, you can make R20,000 a year, but that probably takes about R15,000 to start up including hives and equipment.” He says the owner of 20 hives can earn wages similar to a domestic worker for a full year.

He hopes to solve some of these problems with Honey Bee Heroes, including a sponsorship programme where patrons can front the costs of setting up ten hives for a low-income South African, hosted on long-term sites he’s secured from local farmers. And what do the farmers get in return? Delicious honey and discounted brandy at the pub on Oosthuizen’s farm.

But if Allsop had his way, no more South Africans would become beekeepers. He says there’s no more space for them, because forage is disappearing.

“Right now, every hobbyist beekeeper is putting a strain on the industry. Instead of more beekeepers, we need more trees.”

Opening a conversation between honeybee experts like Oosthuizen and the Working for Water team may be the first step in making that happen.

Correction: The article originally said Oosthuizen bought more than 450 hives. This has been amended to 200.

SarahBelle Selig is a freelance writer living in Cape Town and a second-year in the Master’s in Creative Writing programme at University of Cape Town. She freelances for Catalyst Press, an independent book publisher in the US, and is the publicity writer for the South African Bone Marrow Registry.

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