As spring arrives in North America, the introduced European honeybees which pollinate many of the food crops upon which the world depends are not in sufficient health to perform their job. This is a complicated problem, which has an impact on both human survival in terms of what we eat, and also in terms of our adjusting to using sustainable fuels – many of which are produced from crops pollinated by bees.
Why are European bees failing in areas such as the USA, Canada, Argentina and Europe to name a few?
The European bees have been bred and managed by humans for the purpose of honey production and pollination for 1000's of years, with a huge increase in the intensity of this breeding in the last 100 years. Good honey producing beehives were transported to the Americas, where honeybees did not exist naturally. A very small number of queen bees were therefore responsible for providing the bees which colonised two large continents. In Europe, introduced diseases eradicated wild honeybees on a number of occasions, firstly with tracheal mites and later varroa mites. Each time a new disease eradicated beehives, biodiversity was lost, and only human maintained, bred beehives remained.
By the mid 1990's the races of European honeybees had been largely decimated, with those surviving being medicated and maintained by humans. Without natural resistance to disease, European honeybees have become less effective and in cases, unreliable pollinators of crops. Constant medication is both costly to the beekeeping industry and costly to the public perception of the 'naturalness' of honey if these products are detected in honey as a result.
In Africa, the African bees, close relatives of the European bees, live in a far more favourable environment. African bees have not been bred to any large degree, and in most cases exist as wild colonies, or semi managed colonies, in the forests and savannahs of this vast continent. Various races of African bees live in different parts of the continent, from the small, dark black Apis mellifera capensis of the Cape of South Africa, to the yellow intensely aggressive Apis mellifera scutellata of the Africa interior to the hard working Apis mellifera monticula of the African highlands in Kenya and Tanzania.
Genetic diversity in the African bees has resulted in these bees having more genetic resources with which to deal with introduced diseases. As an example, in 1999-2000 the parastic mite, Varroa destructor arrived in hives in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The beehives showed outward signs of distress, many hives died or left, but more than 50% survived.
Seven years later, the varroa mite is now just a nuisance in these hives, not a problem – the natural genetic diversity in our bees resulted in resistance mechanisms being selected for. If however, as had happened with European bees, we had bred out our genetic diversity in favour of one trait, honey production, Africa could well be without its most important pollinator.
In the 1940s careless introduction of certain races of African bees in South America, together with ill-advised political lobbying in the US led to the evolution of the so called 'African killer bee' and its mythology. In essence this is the honeybee which is dominant throughout most of Africa and which pollinates many of our crops. Commercial beekeepers pack African bees in 18 wheeler trucks and migrate them 1000km from the central arid areas to the northern parts South Africa and to the Natal coast to pollinate crops such as cherries, canola, sunflower, citrus, avocado and all the other usual bee pollinated crops.
Given that honeybees are an alien species in the Americas, and that they perform a task upon which the future of humans depends – pollination of our food, and increasingly, our fuel, it seems logical that North American policy makers need to look at basing their food and fuel production strategies on good quality reliable pollinators such as those present in Africa.
To allow this to happen, it will be increasingly important for Africa to be seen as a breeding ground for genetically diverse bee material which can be continuously exported into the North American agro-economy so as to provide reliable pollinators. The current strains of African bees present in the Southern US and South America are not ideal for this purpose as they are aggressive and of limited genetic variability compared to bees from for instance parts of Kenya or South Africa.
Environmentally there is also an additional conservation spin-off. European bees generally die out within a year or two in the wilds in North America due to diseases, but these feral bees still occupy nesting sites for birds and squirrels in nature reserves. The presence of industrial pollinators which are not part of the natural environment shifts the shape of the ecosystem. Hence African bees, which would die out in winter are less of a potential threat in cold climates as they can be kept only in areas where they are needed and any escaped swarms will perish rapidly.
While every solution may bring a host of new problems, if we are to plan ahead for sustainable food and fuel production, we need sustainable pollination, and Africa may provide a solution with her hardy healthy bee populations.
By Dr Garth Cambray