Once abundant on the tropical shores of Hawaii and now threatened by extinction, seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees were added to the endangered species list on 30 September. These are not the only species of bee that are dwindling. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services have already proposed adding the rusty-patched bumblebee, a species that was once abundant in the upper mid-western and north-eastern parts of America, to the list. Adding bees to the endangered species list allows access to funding for recovery programs and measures to protect the species.

Bees are essential to life. Bees are major pollinators and according to an article published on Sciencealert.com on 3 October titled “7 bee species have been added to the US endangered species list” bees contribute to the production of 70% of all fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts, and without them about 30% of the world’s crops would fail, as well as 90% of the world’s wild plants Prof. Christian Pirk, a zoology lecturer at the University of Pretoria. Prof. Pirk says that “a pollinator decline is of concern – 80% of the food produced is dependent directly or indirectly on pollinators, the vast majority is insect pollinators. In 2010 a United Nation report estimated the contribution of insect pollination to the global economy to around 153 Billion Euros. Also, in 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that out of some 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated. In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop species are animal pollinated and 4 000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees.”. Although this crisis seems to be exclusive to America, South Africa is also seeing a decline in its bee populations. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) says on the African honeybee animal listing on their website that although the African honeybee is not officially classified as “threatened,” it does experience various threats and numbers are declining. Honeybees pollinate roughly 50 types of crops in South Africa, including sunflowers and subtropical fruits. According to the agriculture section of the South African Government website, agriculture contributes about 3% of our country’s GDP and 7% of our formal employment, making the decline of bees a very real and concerning plight, nationally and globally. However, Prof. Pirk believes that we should also be concerned for South Africa’s tourism sector as pollinators contribute significantly to biodiversity. He says, “The CFR includes the “Cape Floral Region Protected Areas” were inscribed as a World heritage Site in 2004. For a country like South Africa, which has a strong tourism sector, protecting biodiversity is crucial in my opinion. In South Africa, we have more than 2500 different species of bees, ranging from solitary to highly social like the Western honeybee. I guess we should be concerned about most of them.”

According to Sciencealert.com in 2015, the number of bees dwindled by almost one-third due to colony collapse disorder. Colony collapse disorder is the event where worker bees leave the hive, leaving only the queen and some carers. More recently, however, the decline in bees has been pinned down to climate change, habitat loss, invasive species and pesticides, according to a National Geographic article published on 1 October titled “For the first time, bees declared endangered in the U.S.”. A relatively new type of insecticide, neonicotinoids, affects the nervous system of bees and causes their nectar to become contaminated. In turn, this can contaminate and affect the whole hive, from Sciencealert. com. Prof. Pirk says “we do not actually know how many colonies are killed by pest removers every year and the industry is very secretive about that kind of data,” however he believes that “less usage of pesticides in the garden, a diverse habitat in terms of flowering plants and [providing] nesting sites for solitary bees and other bee species” are all things we can do to help save our bees. Most importantly though, he believes that we should increase awareness to fight the plight of bees.

However, there are many things that can be done to help save the bees. We can buy local fruit and vegetables to support beekeepers, limit our pesticide usage and donate to the Pollinator Partnership according to an article published by CNN on 12 March 2015 titled “5 ways to help save the bees”. However, one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce the decline in bees is to plant more bee-friendly flowers such as lavender, poppies, sunflowers and sage. The Fish and Wildlife Service website advises to plant in clumps, ensuring that there are a variety of plants that flower in different seasons, this will not only brighten up our gardens, it will also save the bees. After all, it is vital that South Africans take initiative to protect the African honeybee, before they too reach endangered status.

Photo: Shen Scott

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