Since the end of 2006, beekeepers in the US, Europe, Canada, South America, Central America, and Asia, have reported honeybee colony losses of between 30% and 90%.
This means that many bees do not return to the spring pollination areas. The occurrence has been termed colony collapse disorder (CCD).
"With CCD, bees leave on foraging missions and do not return, hence their hive starves as it has no income of food, a dwindling population of workers, and no new workers to replace the lost ones as there is no food coming in to produce worker bees," explains biotechnologist and co-founder and director of honey-based products manufacturer Makana Meadery Dr Garth Cambray.
One of the biggest indications of CCD in colonies is that the majority of the adult population suddenly goes missing without any dead bees being present. The bees leave their young, their queen, and sometimes a small number of adult bees behind, which is unusual, as bees are generally social insects and very colony-oriented.
Honeybee colony losses are not uncommon and have occurred before owing to bee pests, parasites, pathogens, and diseases, but it is still unclear what the cause of the recent losses could be attributed to.
Cambray says that honeybees navigate about 6 km from their beehives to forage for pollen and nectar.
"Flowers pay bees with nectar to visit the flower and move pollen around and fertilise the flower. In exchange for this service, the bee receives additional pollen, which it takes back to the hive, and nectar which it drinks and takes back to the hive," he says, explaining that pollen makes up the protein for bees, while the nectar provides fuel for the bees.
Surplus nectar is converted to honey and stored for use when no food is available.
Cambray explains that beekeepers are able to rent beehives to farmers for pollination services. A strong hive is taken to an area where the bees pollinate millions of flowers an hour for a few days, until the crop is pollinated.
The beekeeper will then take the bees to another area where they recover and build up numbers, after which they are moved to new pollination areas.
"This is called migratory beekeeping. For example, bees are moved from the warm Florida winter to California. So, in spring in North America, generally the only effective pollinators present are honeybees as they survive as a colony through winter," says Cambray.
Solitary pollinators such as leaf cutter bees take a few months to build up numbers as they do not over-winter in a colony with food stores, which means that honeybees are critical for pollination of early crops such as almonds.
Cambray states that if migratory beekeepers have had all their hives die or disappear, such as with CCD, then there is no pollination, and hence no crop.
Honeybees pollinate a number of different agricultural crops, including almonds, apples, avocados, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, kiwi fruit, macadamia nuts, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, onions, legume seeds, pumpkins, squash, sunflowers, canola, rapeseed, safflower, soybeen, and a range of other crops.
Thus, CCD has an impact on the entire global food economy. Cambray explains that if there is reduced oil seed production in North America, there is a reduction in the availability of oil cake, an essential ingredient for pork farming.
"Bees pollinate all oil seeds like sunflowers and canola. Hence reduced bee supply means reduced pork supply," says Cambray.
He adds that the price of pork is one of the biggest inflation drivers in China and if the inflation rate in China rises, the interest rate increases. In turn, China is America's bank in terms of borrowing money, so inflation in China pushes up interest rates in America and has an effect on the over-indebted sections of that country, for example those with sub-prime loans.
"So, in addition to the fact that people will have less food, it influences the global credit economy, which means farmers pay more for money to buy seeds and fertiliser, and hence many farmers are unable to raise the capital to farm effectively, meaning that food security is influenced globally," states Cambray.
The loss of bee colonies would also affect the production of biofuels, as there will be no oil if there are no bees to pollinate oil seed crops such as sunflower, canola, soybeen, rapeseed and safflower.
"Bees are critical to biodiesel production as all of these crops produce the feed stocks for biodiesel. However, it has no impact on bioethanol as this is made from cane and maize, both of which do not require bees to pollinate the crops," says Cambray.
Although it is unlikely that a similar situation will occur in Africa, the possibility does exist. Cambray explains that any disease that kills bees could kill African bees.
However, he states that African bees are less disease-prone than their European counterparts, owing to greater genetic diversity.
And while there have not been reports of CCD occurring in South Africa or Africa, the occurrence of CCD in bee colonies in other parts of the world could have an indirect effect on African countries.
"Africa is a net importer of foods, so anything which influences food volume production influences Africa, as we buy other countries' surplus products. Likewise, for biofuels," says Cambray.
In addition, Cambray says that the African bee could prove to be a possible solution for beekeepers in other parts of the world that have had bee colony losses owing to CCD.
He explains that African bees have not been as heavily bred as European bees, and subsequently have greater genetic diversity.
"Because of this diversity, one finds that a disease may kill a percentage of the bees, but those with resistance rapidly emerge, through natural selection, and the disease challenge is then negated and the bees adapt to live with the disease," says Cambray.
If bees were farmed in large quantities, bees could be sent by aircraft to the US, and installed in hives.
"Essentially beekeepers buy 1 kg of bees and a queen, or 2 kg of bees and a queen and install those bees in a hive box, where they perform pollination services from spring to winter, after which they are allowed to die in winter," says Cambray, while adding that African bees cannot survive the cold Northern winter like their European counterparts.
During the next spring, two-million more beehives would be flown in to replace the ones from the previous year, and so the cycle would continue.
"In this way, bees would be farmed and exported, creating job opportunities for farmers in Africa to be bee exporters," states Cambray.
For about the past 20 years, European bees have been bred in countries like Chile and Australia, and then flown to the US where they would be used to pollinate crops.
Cambray explains that an entire plane full of bees is flown to the US to subsidise the bee colonies used for pollination.
At present, US legislation does not permit the import of African bees, which are seen as vermin, but Cambray says that this could change in the future.
Should African bees be exported from South Africa, it could supply the exporter with an income of about $30 for each swarm, which consists of about 3 500 to 7 000 young bees.
Once in the US, the young bees will be fed sugar to ensure their growth. The bees would be imported by the US in the early spring and would be fully grown in time for pollination.