One man’s quest to avert the beepocalypse

2013-08-25 14:00

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Bees have a reputation for working themselves to death, but some South African bees have decided that this kind of grind is simply not for them.

Instead, they have found a new job: taking over other beehives, letting other worker bees slave away for them and raise their offspring, while they sit back and enjoy the sweet life.

“It has a name – the Cape honeybee problem,” says Professor Robin Crewe, South Africa’s bee guru.

Crewe has just received the prestigious R1 million Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award for 2012 to study South African bees and a large chunk of his research will be dedicated to the so-called Cape parasitic workers.

The fellowship will help Crewe to produce a book about the life history of the honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) in collaboration with Professor Robin Moritz of Germany’s University of Halle-Wittenberg.

Crewe’s research reads like a Hollywood sci-fi plot. Cape honeybees infiltrate the Savannah honeybees’ hive, lay their eggs and start copying the chemical signals of the hive’s queens to fool the invaded colony into rearing their breed.

Sometimes the bees responsible for policing the hives are savvy enough to spot the imposters – which they then kill.

But if the detectives in the hive are not up to scratch, it signals the colony’s doom.

The oblivious colony of Savannah honeybees goes on with its busy life, making honey and feeding the invaders, until the interlopers’ eggs hatch.

Bad news: the invader offspring are just as lazy as their parents.

They’re not interested in working, so the existing colony dies off and the parasitic Cape honeybees move on to their next victims.

Bees are big news in the US and Europe at the moment. Just two weeks ago, Time magazine’s front cover read: “A world without bees: The price we’ll pay if don’t figure out what is killing the honeybee.”

The price of honeybee extinction is huge – bees put food on the table.

At least one-third of the food in our diet relies to some extent on bee pollination. Apples, avocado, zucchini, broccoli, and a host of other fruits and vegetables all depend on bees to spread their pollen. A single bee colony can pollinate 300?million flowers each day.

Bees’ pollination services can also ensure bigger yields of food crops – some by up to three times.

Bees also matter environmentally and economically.

Tonio Borg, European commissioner for health and consumer policy, calculated that bees “contribute over R300?million annually to European agriculture”.

Luckily, South Africa is not quite as bad off as the US yet.

Crewe says despite the Cape honeybee problem, “we have not yet experienced colony-collapse disorder, as in the case of the US and Europe”.

“In general, our honeybee population seems to be quite healthy, according to a survey we did a year ago.”

However, there is cause for concern. Crewe says that, increasingly, beekeepers in South Africa are reporting that they are losing colonies.

The losses are far greater than those experienced in the past.

“We need to understand what is causing these losses,” he says.

“It is too early to tell what is wrong and if there is a significant problem.”

In the US and Europe, pesticides – including a new class called neonicotinoids – have been fingered as a big culprit in colony-collapse disorder.

But in South Africa little is known about how the new pesticides affect our colonies.

Another culprit is bee parasites such as the Varroa mite.

Part of Crewe’s work will be to study bee parasites and diseases to determine what is making our bees ill.

Apart from producing honey and ensuring that we have food, bees are also the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

“Bees are very good at measuring the negative effects of agricultural practices,” says Crewe.

“Bees can be a very important indicator as to whether we are doing something right or wrong.”

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