Sifelani Tsiko —
A mysterious disease is wiping out African bee colonies in the southern and western parts of Zimbabwe threatening honey production, the livelihood of beekeepers and possibly crops that need bees for pollination.
Local beekeepers in Bulilima district, about 85km west of Plumtree border town, told Zimpapers Syndication that the outbreak had reduced honey yields and impacted negatively on their livelihoods.
“I don’t know what is destroying beehives here in our district,” said Great Ndebele, a farmer from the Ndolwane Ward of Bulilima district.
“We have reported this to the Forestry Commission district officer and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. They have taken samples and they say they are studying them to find out what the problem is.”
During an FAO media tour conducted recently in Bulilima district, Fortunes Mathuthu, a Forestry Commission district officer, also told Zimpapers Syndication about how the unknown ailment was damaging beehives.
“We have heard about the reports and investigations are underway to establish the real cause of bee disease,” he said. “Preliminary findings show that some worms attack beehives with honeycomb. The worms appear to be parasitic and they eat all the honey, reducing honey for the survival of bee populations and for local farmers.
“And when the beehives are attacked, bees tend to leave the hives and this severely reduces the bee population in the district.”
The impact for local smallholder farmers is severe.
“When beehives are attacked, there is no honey for us or for selling,” said Ndebele.
“Honey from the wild is our core source of survival. The little extra income we generate from honey is lost when beehives are wiped out. The situation is worse particularly now when amacimbi harvests have fallen drastically due to over-harvesting by people coming from far-away places across the country.”
Researchers from FAO are scrambling to find the cause of the ailment.
“I can’t say much now about the study,” said Dr Rudo Sithole, a University of Zimbabwe entomologist, who is spearheading the FAO study on the disease on African bees in Matabeleland South, Manicaland and parts of Namibia.
“I’m preparing the report for submission to FAO on the survey on African bee pests. FAO will release the full report once I give it to them.”
FAO, in partnership with Practical Action, Environment Africa and the Forestry Commission are working with local communities on re-afforestation projects in the Mangwe and Bulilima districts.
The programmes are educating people about the importance of conserving trees and biodiversity such as bees and amacimbi which are facing threats of extinction.
In Africa and worldwide, bees are crucial for agriculture and the environment, according to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe).
The continent now has the African Reference Laboratory for Bee Health located in Nairobi, Kenya. Experts say more than 70 percent of the world’s major crops rely on bee pollination to produce fruits and seeds. They say bees also provide much needed extra income for smallholder farmers, who sell honey, wax and other products.
Studies by entomologists also show that honeybee populations across the world are struggling to overcome attacks from parasites such as the varroa mite and infection with diseases, as well as the dreaded Colony Collapse Disorder that has decimated bee populations in the USA and parts of Europe.
“Bees and other pollinators are significant contributors to food security and ecosystem health. Bees improve the environment and they do not prey on any other species. Aside from crops, bees also pollinate grasses and forage plants, therefore contributing indirectly to meat and milk production,” Dr Segenet Kelemu, head of Icipe, was quoted saying.
The first step in protecting African bees, he says, is to know what pests and diseases are already out there. The African laboratory now has satellite stations in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Liberia and Ethiopia where experts monitor the health of the continent’s bee populations to detect emerging pests and diseases and respond before they threaten food security.
Experts say Africa is home to an amazing diversity of well-adapted bees, including honeybees, stingless bees and carpenter bees. Climate change risks and human activity have been blamed for the decimation of bee populations.
Fears now abound that the Cape bee (Apis capensis) from South Africa could destroy local bee colonies and threaten the livelihood of an estimated 50 000 small scale honey farmers in Zimbabwe if nothing is done to strengthen monitoring mechanisms in the country.
Environment Africa country director Barney Mawire told the writer sometime ago that the Cape bee could paralyse the local bee population and affect the country’s small but important beekeeping industry.
“Zimbabwe’s bee population is now under threat from Cape bees from South Africa,” he said. “We fear that if they come they might take over local bee colonies. We need to strengthen our local reporting and monitoring mechanism to ensure the survival of our local bees.
“The Cape bees kill local bee varieties and threaten local bee populations.”
Apiculturalists however say the Cape bee tends to be a more docile bee than the African bee. They say it can be distinguished from the African bee by a darker abdomen and is sometimes referred to as “black bees”.
It has a unique characteristic in that the worker bees (females) have the ability to produce both male and female offspring and thus able to re-queen a colony which has become queen less.
The downside of this characteristic, according to apiculturalists, is that it has the ability to parasitise scutellata (African honey bee) colonies. Capensis laying workers invade and subsequently begin to lay their own eggs, challenging the scutellata queen’s ability to control the colony.
“The original colony becomes overtaken by Cape bees and will collapse,” said Mawire.
Apiculturalists say signs of a Capensis invasion are: multiple eggs observed in cells, (may even be laid on top of pollen), raised capping of brood cells, reduced activity within the hive, and non-aggressive bees.
Environmentalists say the Cape bee in South Africa could be transported to Zimbabwe in food pallets or may even be able to fly across the Limpopo.
Mawire said if introduced into Zimbabwe, Cape bees could have a severe impact on the native honeybee population, which has been rapidly declining since the 1950s.
“Cape bees can paralyse our local African bee populations,” he said. “The beekeeping industry is a small but important industry in Zimbabwe which contributes thousands of dollars directly into the economy from bee products.
“Many of our local communities depend on them for survival.”
He said measures needed to be taken to protect the local apiary industry by strengthening major bee pests and disease quarantine and surveillance measures. Exotic bees, he further said, can carry pests and diseases which have the potential to devastate the country’s beekeeping industry.
“All foreign bees, including the Cape bee, must be considered a serious threat,” Mawire said.
Apiculturalists say honey bee populations have declined dramatically world-wide in the past 10 years due to a number of factors including climate change, human intervention and this has contributed to a global shortage of honey.
Beekeeping promotes economic self-reliance and is a life-sustaining source of income for the poor. — Zimpapers Syndication