‘Bees are as vital to the planet as water’

An active hive at apriarist Brendan Ashley Cooper's home.

Honey bees are essential to the survival of the planet, says Brendan Ashley Cooper, a third generation bee farmer from Westlake. His grandfather started farming bees in 1947, and today he owns about 1 100 hives.

“Just like we need clean air and we need water to drink, honey bees are essential. It’s not just something us beekeepers need to make a living, they’re essential to the survival of the planet. Bees pollinate lucern, which feeds the cattle, which produce milk and beef. Everything is interrelated. So you’re not just thinking of the fruit or the vegetables but one has to look at the other benefits that they do like pollinating clover for the seed production,” Mr Ashley Cooper said. “Honey bees are as vital to the planet as water.”

Internationally, bee numbers have dwindled dramatically from various causes, such as invasive wasps, diseases and pesticides but honey bee researcher Mike Allsop says Western Cape bees appear to be holding their own.

“It seems our bees are managing reasonably well,” Mr Allsop, a senior researcher at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) says.

The local industry has had a few scares though and Mr Ashley Cooper says that when American Foulbrood (AFB), a potentially devastating bee disease, was first found to have reached our shores in 2009, some beekeepers lost up to 60 percent of their hives.

“In 2009, I lost 300 hives, that’s a third of my hives, in six months due to the disease.”

Thankfully, though, Mr Allsop says the industry is managing.

“The local, provincial or national government don’t have monitoring programmes, so we don’t know, but my guess is they are doing reasonably well,” he says.

However, honey production has taken a dip from other factors, such as the theft and vandalism of hives.

“My hives get stolen, they get broken open, they get robbed,” Mr Ashley Cooper says.

But the biggest threat to Western Cape bees, with regard to both their honey production and their health, is a lack of forage.

“Honey production in South Africa 20 years ago was 3 000 tons. Twenty years later, with more bee hives, we are producing under 1 500 tons of honey. So we’ve lost the forage, we’ve got more bees and nowhere to keep them and bees need a variety of forage to stay healthy as much as humans do,” says Mr Ashley Cooper.

“There’s a huge need for something to be done urgently. A hive needs about four hectares of vegetation. So if we want to sustain another extra hundred thousand hives for example, we need to plant four hundred thousand hectares of vegetation. It’s a huge, huge thing. We are working at it from different angles ourselves in beekeeping but it is a huge undertaking.”

The removal of alien vegetation is one of the causes of the dwindling forage. Aliens are sometimes replaced with fynbos, not all of which is “bee-friendly”, or young trees which are not nectar-producing yet.

“South Africa is actually a very poor beekeeping country. We don’t have the right natural vegetation to do beekeeping on the scale that they do in other countries,” Mr Ashley Cooper says.

“And trees aren’t nectar-producing overnight. A tree takes five to 10 years before we can actually utilise its nectar, so we should have started this 10 or 20 years ago, before they started cutting down all the aliens.”

Mr Ashley Cooper says, simply planting herbs in domestic gardens would help.

“Every little bit helps. If you are creating bee forage on the peninsula, it is freeing up bee forage elsewhere. And it keeps the bees healthy. Let’s plant trees that are bee friendly instead of just a beautiful tree.”

South Africa has two endemic bee species: the African bee and the Cape honey bee.

The Cape honey bee is specific to the Western Cape.

The Cape bee is more docile than its cousin but it can become aggressive and if a hive becomes agitated it can be deadly. That’s why Mr Ashley Cooper is wary of urban beekeeping.

Urban hives are popping up all over. City hives are mostly hidden on flat rooftops or in secluded places.

Plumstead resident Ellen Fedele was thrilled when she stumbled across five hives belonging to an urban apiarist at a secluded spot behind her block of flats.

“I’m an animal fanatic and I know that everything in the eco-system works for the greater good. If you disturb one part of the eco-system then it messes up the rest too. That’s why every bee is precious.”

After discovering the hives by accident, Ms Fedele did some research on the subject. She soon became a pro-urban apiarism convert and has been trying to get body corporates to put hives on their roofs. She has found, however, that her zeal for bees is not shared by many.

“A block of flats nearby said ‘no’ because someone on the property was allergic to bees,” she says.

Mr Ashley Cooper, however, believes urban beekeeping should be approached with caution. His hives are spread out over a large area. About a dozen are at his home in Westlake. Others are tucked away in secluded, leafy parts of suburbia and the rest are on farms where the bees are needed to pollinate crops.

“Overseas and especially in Europe, bees have been extensively bred to weed out traits such as aggression, but the bees in the Western Cape are wild and have the potential to go berserk. We don’t know what the triggers are. It happens, not often, but it does happen.”

Mr Allsop says there has been a small “non-substantial” increase in urban beekeeping coupled with “no meaningful debate on it”. He agrees that there is more of a risk with urban beekeeping.

“Every metropole in the Western Cape regulates beekeeping in built-up areas because our bees are considerably more defensive than in Europe,” he says.