Honey producers hard hit by fires

31 July 2017

mediumGarden Route and Eastern Cape beekeepers are biting the bullet after the destruction of well over 1 000 cultivated hives in the area by fires. While the destruction has resulted in substantial financial losses for the beekeepers, with a likely slip in honey production, it has also raised concern for the well-being of the Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) on which they all rely.

The Cape honeybee has the smallest distribution of any bee globally, extending through the fynbos tract from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. During the recent fires, millions of the bees perished in cultivated and wild hives and many bee colonies that were not wiped out will now be swarming, looking for forage, beekeepers said.

Save Thornhill Bees coordinator, Jackie Hume, said while there were only three commercial beekeepers in the area, there were many more with hives spread out through Loerie, Witteklip, Rocklands, Lady Slipper, Van Staden’s Gorge and Longmore – all of which were hit by the fires.

‘The latest total of hives lost is 700 and we know that this figure for cultivated hives makes up just 5–10% of the total Cape bee population in an area. A hive could be home to anything from a handful of bees to 50 000 so it was clear that a huge number of bees, already struggling because of the drought and the lack of flowering fynbos, had been killed. Where they weren’t burnt in their hives, they would have been killed by the smoke. Others that escaped and survived may have had to fly too far for forage and will have died. Millions were killed for sure,’ said Hume.

Hume said that at first she initiated a drive for donations of sugar to make sugar water to replace the bees’ normal pollen and nectar diet, but this could only work in the short term from a health point of view. ‘I will now be focusing on raising funds to buy a balanced bee booster supplement,’ she said.

In the long term, the aim was to establish a Thornhill Bee Foundation to guide the regeneration of fynbos and repopulate the area with healthy colonies. The process will be made easier because the Cape bee is the only bee species in the world that can re-queen itself, producing another queen and regenerating the hive if the old queen dies.

‘People wanting to help should go to the Save Thornhill Bees Facebook site,’ Hume said.

Knysna Beekeepers Association coordinator, Eddie Hart, whose honey was judged the best in the world at the Black Jar Honey Contest in North Carolina in the US in 2013, said their hives had been hard hit in the fires. ‘We lost at least 300 hives. Now it’s just a matter of helping the surviving bees to make it through until the next rains – when they come – and revive the vegetation.’

The Knysna Beekeepers Association was hugely grateful for the donations they had received.International aid organisation Gift of the Givers has spearheaded this support for the Knysna beekeepers. The organisation’s founder, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, said he was fascinated by what he had learned about the Cape bee.‘I was so impressed by this unique little bee and the focus by the [Knysna Beekeepers’ Association] on keeping everything organic. I said let’s put in R250 000 and take it from there,’ said Dr Sooliman. Gift of the Givers’ involvement sparked a flood of further donations.

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