The physicist Albert Einstein is reported to have said that if the honey bee becomes extinct, humankind will follow four years later. Although perhaps the consequences may not be quite as dramatic, beekeeper Rene Fischer, chairman of the Mashonaland Beekeepers’ Association, says the assertion highlights the important role bees play in the environment.
“Some of our major staple crops, maize and wheat, are wind pollinated and don’t need to flower to produce a harvest,” said Fischer, in response to questions from Harare News, explaining, “but, our diet would certainly be more boring, less diversified and all the nutritious and delicious pulses, fruits and vegetables would be a lot more expensive without the cooperation of the honey bee.”
Crops that cross-pollinate are said to yield more compared to those which self-pollinate. These insects help in cross-pollination that humans depend on for food. If crops aren’t pollinated, the production of food in the country will decrease and hunger will become a national crisis.
Apart from honey, which is a good source of income for local communities and farmers, bees’ other potential avenues for revenue include beeswax used in hair-care products, such as shampoos and hair wax, as well as soap. The scope for other value-added products includes propolis (which has medical applications), royal jelly (a honey bee secretion specifically used for the nutrition of queen bee larvae and in demand by the cosmetic industry) and bee venom (apitoxin, a liquid with anti-coagulant and anti-inflammatory properties). Bee products are now also highly recommended by the medical profession as treatment for many ailments.
On the likely impacts of climate change on bees and honey production, Fischer warns that rising global temperatures are having some impacts not only on bees, but on butterflies and other pollinating insects as well. Climate change, after flora destruction and land-use changes (like building and construction), is regarded as the most relevant factor responsible for the decline of pollinators. The bee expert notes that as a result of climate change, there have been two critical observations: bee habitats are moving, and there has been a change in the seasonal behaviour of different bee species. “The survival of honey bees and plants, especially on wetlands, is very closely linked,” he says.
Our wetlands and open farmland which are often decimated by veld fires and deforestation could suffer from further declines in bee populations. However, there is no doubt that intact and healthy wetlands will definitely attract bees and other insects, particularly when plants and sedges are flowering. “But hives are likely to be located in adjacent woodlands. Wetland and woodland ecosystems support each other – nothing in nature exists separately, so bees will move between these habitats,” says Dorothy Wakeling, from the Conservation Society of Monavale in Harare.
A researcher at EMA (Environmental Management Agency) says a major problem is the loss of biodiversity as a result of the indiscriminate felling of native plants. He affirmed that if bees vanished from the planet today the world would be very different. The EMA official repeats: “We take the issue of bee health very seriously. The issue is currently up for discussion and we urge people and groups to respond.”
Photo: Brian Reiter