The Daily Maverick: 'Honeybees are disappearing overnight...throughout SA'

Published 28 June 2021 in Insights

The Daily Maverick

'Honeybees are disappearing overnight: Theft and vandalism of bee boxes and honey are rife throughout SA'

By Julia Evans

The Daily Maverick - Our Burning Planet

Published 22 June 2021

Bee theft and hive vandalism threaten beekeepers’ livelihoods and the bee industry’s sustainability, but also have a serious impact on the ecology, food security and the economy. Bee farmers are trying to get bees to be seen as livestock so that authorities will take them seriously.

Theft and vandalism of bee boxes and honey is increasing in SA, decreasing an already endangered insect group. (Photo: Julia Evans)

On the morning of 27 May 2021, beekeeper Craig Campbell visited his apiary site (an area ideal for bees to forage), to find that overnight, 235 of his bee boxes had been destroyed. The thieves cut out the honey, destroying the hives, equipment and killing the broods in the process. 

The few bee colonies that survived the destructive vandalism lost their home. Campbell told 'Daily Maverick' that the total loss of the equipment, bee colonies and honey amounts to about R700,000.

“How do you recover from that, you know?” says Campbell, who’s been a bee farmer for more than 30 years. “It’s a massive knock to us. I mean, we’re carrying on for now, but to me, the writing’s on the wall, I’m closing up.” 

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence. Campbell knows several beekeepers who’ve experienced the same thing and who have either had to close down or are considering closing.

“We have a massive problem with vandalism and theft,” says Kai Hichert, chairman of the Southerns Beekeeping Association and board member of the South African Bee Industry Organisation (Sabio). 

Hichert has experienced several instances where his bee boxes were vandalised or thieves would carry off several boxes. He told 'Daily Maverick' that while there has always been theft and vandalism involving bees, in the last year more and more cases have been reported.

Hichert, who is also the chief beekeeper at Simplie Honey, says, “What they do is come and cut out the honey, straight into buckets. Then they tend to sell the honey on places like Facebook. Often you’ll see a guy in the East Rand selling a couple hundred kilos of honey, but he doesn’t own any hives.”

Mokgadi Mabela, Pretoria beekeeper and owner of Native Nosi, recently shared a video on Twitter showing her vandalised bee boxes at one of her apiary sites. 

“The honey, as well as the brood, as well as all the frames inside the actual box — they were gone. It was only a small cluster of bees that were left,” Mabela told 'Daily Maverick'. This is the fourth time Mabela has been the victim of theft or vandalism of her honey or bee boxes.

The ongoing theft and vandalism are further reducing an already endangered insect group.

“I can say that we are experiencing a global bee population decline,” says Mabela. “And that is obviously going to have a direct impact on our food and on our ecosystem.

“We are developing more areas faster than we are planting alternative accommodation for the bees.”

Dr Annalie Melin, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Statistics in Ecology, Environment and Conservation at the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Science, published a research paper in 2019 on the taxonomy of the South African bee.

Honey from Kai Hichert’s company, Simplie Honey. ‘Honey is literally a byproduct for us,’ says Craig Campbell. (Photo: Julia Evans)

In the paper, Melin states that bees “appear to be facing numerous threats globally, from habitat destruction, diseases and climate change, and are considered an insect group especially vulnerable to extinction”.

So what are the repercussions of losing bees?

The impact of this doesn’t just affect the beekeeper’s livelihood and the bee industry as a whole (more and more bee farmers are closing up), but has ecological repercussions, threatens food security and has a knock-on effect on the economy.

Threat to biodiversity and ecology

Bees support our biodiversity and ecosystems, pollinating 40%-70% of indigenous flowering plants.

This in turn affects ecology, threatening other animals’ livelihoods.

“The thing that people forget is that bees pollinate flowers and trees,” says Mabela. “And species depend on certain plants that the bees pollinate. Other animals, even if they are not herbivores — like lions, and leopards — depend on trees for shelter, for their cubs and things like that. 

“So it’s a whole ecosystem that’s affected by this… by what you’re destroying, what you think is only a hive.”

Threat to food security

Bees are the world’s largest crop pollinators. The Western Cape government reported that more than 50 types of crops rely on bees’ pollination.

Hichert told 'Daily Maverick' that bees are responsible for pollinating  70%-80% of the food we eat. Macadamias, avocados, apples, cherries, sunflowers, kidney beans, pumpkin, watermelon, lychees and mangoes are just some of the crops that rely on pollination.

“So without bees, we won’t have fruits, we won’t have vegetables, we won’t have seeds, we won’t have nuts, basically,” says Mabela. 

“Honeybees are the biggest food pollinators. We do have other pollinators, but bees are the biggest food pollinators that we have on the planet.”