• Communities wary of climate-change linked threats to bee populations
• Experts worry that the trend portends danger to community livelihoods
By Patrick Musira : The physicist Albert Einstein, is reported to have said that if the honey bee is extinguished, humankind will follow four years later.
Although perhaps the consequences may not be as “Einsteinian” and dramatic as the above, says beekeeper Rene Fischer, the assertion goes a long way in highlighting the important role bees play in the environment.
“Of course, some of our major staple crops, maize and wheat, are wind pollinated and potatoes don’t need to flower to produce a harvest. But,” says the Mashonaland Beekeepers Association, , “our diet would certainly be more boring, less diversified and all the nutritious and delicious pulses, fruit and vegetables might be a lot more expensive without the cooperation of the honey bee.”
In Zimbabwe and around Africa, the hottest debate that has always been in the limelight on biodiversity conservation is on the decline of the larger wild animals – the Big Five – like elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard while bees and butterflies have been ignored despite the fact that they directly contribute to human wellbeing.
These insects help in cross pollination of crops that human depends on as food. If crops aren’t pollinated, then high production of foods in the country will go down and hunger will be declared a national disaster in coming years.
In responses to questions from The Afronews on the likely impacts of climate change on bees and honey production, Fischer warns that rising global temperatures are having some impacts on not only bees, but on butterflies and other pollinating insects as well with attendant consequences.
Climate change, after flora and land-use changes, can be regarded as one of the top three most relevant factors responsible for the decline of pollinators.
The bee expert notes that as a result of climate change, there have been two critical observations: bee habitats moving, and changing seasonal behaviour of different bee species.
Explaining that honeybees collect everything they need, except water, from plants and in return, Fischer points out that bees are essential for these plants’ survival by pollinating them.
“Plants’ and honeybees’ survival are very closely linked,” he says.
“In my personal recollection, rainfall has become more localized and unpredictable.
We don’t appear to have extended wet periods of several weeks like we had in the past. There seems to be more variation from place to place and year to year,” says Fischer, adding that most flowering plants are visited by bees at some stage.
Although Fischer agrees climate definitely has some impact on bee populations and honey production, he says it’s quite speculative to predict the future here.
“. . . a look across border, for example in Botswana, indicates that bees can find their ecological niche also in fairly dry scenarios. So reductions in precipitation may not endanger honey bees and beekeeping altogether, but demand some flexibility to deal with changing seasonal and geographic patterns,” he says.
“Bees can handle warmer temperatures, the question is how the flora responds to changes in temperature and rainfall,” he adds.
But these bees are facing an increased risk because of climate change and, according to some beekeepers in Marondera, in the country’s Mashonaland East province, the truffle of the country’s apiary world could be in danger of melting, raising fears for local entrepreneurs such as honey-sellers that their livelihoods could be at risk.
“Not enough rains for the flowers,” says Elina Murinda, standing on a rocky, parched slope in the bush parallel to the Harare-Mutare highway.
The area, on the highveld with its warm temperate climate, is well known for its honey-sellers along the major highway to the Eastern Highlands from Harare.
“The bees need high-altitude flowers for the best white honey. When they cannot find them, they go to other plants and produce yellow honey,” she says, adding: “Consumers prefer white honey but some potential buyers are now accusing us of adding brown sugar to the honey and we lose customers.”
Murinda usually makes about US$15 to US$25 day on average or even one and half times as much on some lucky day, which is good for her family and she can afford to send her children to school.
The $80 or so a week generated from honey sales along the highway and from customers in Harare is sufficient to buy food for rural families, pay the educational costs for school-going children and other household needs.
Although she has her own hives, she is also part of a co-operative where each member minds a couple of hives to get money for some community projects. Murinda takes her honey-combs to a community-owned processing plant at the nearby Chigondo service centre, where Environment Africa (EA) assists in refining the produce and packaging the honey for sale.
The EA initiative began in early 2011 and is currently benefiting around 5 000 poor and vulnerable rural families in 23 of the country’s 59 districts.
“We know about bees,” says another honey seller Shelly Meki, gripping a large spatula to ladle a dollop of thick and lumpy white honey out of a 5-litre plastic bucket. It is snow-white and tastes sweet and more waxy than yellow honey.
“The price is the highest it has ever been this year, because of scarcity,” says the 20-something mother of two.
She has just sold a few bottles that morning at US$4 each bottle. The previous honey harvesting season on average, the bottle was selling for around US$3 per 375g.
On average, a beekeeper can produce about 60kg of honey per hive in a year, Barney Mawire, EA’s country manager, says, adding that beekeeping can indeed be employed to change the lives of people.
“A producer earns about $10 a kilogramme, which makes it a potentially lucrative business for those that are involved in it,” he adds.
After maize, tobacco, groundnuts and sunflowers, bee products are major contributors to the local community’s economy, especially through markets in the nearby towns of Marondera and Macheke.
These bee products are now also coming highly recommended by the medical profession with claims treatments for many ailments. Not to be left out, city hotels now offer honey as a substitute for sugar on their menus!
Other potential avenues for revenue from beeswax include hair-care products, such as shampoos and hair wax, as well as soap.
The scope for other value-added products include propolis — which has medical applications — royal jelly, a honey bee secretion specifically used for the nutrition of queen bee larvae and in demand by the cosmetic industry, and bee venom (apitoxin), a colourless liquid with anti-coagulant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Beneficiaries can generate enough money to fight hunger, buy assets and send their children to school or foot health bills.
But the skies ahead, however, do not look so bright and cloudless as the sweet news is threatening to turn bitter, with climate change threatening their business.
A director and researcher at the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) says the major cause has been due to degradation of the biodiversity as a result of indiscriminate felling of native plants.
He affirmed that if bees vanished from the planet today, the world as we know it, would be different. He was worried that Zimbabwe is paying little attention to the disappearing bee population.
Apart from bees making honey which is a high source of income to local communities and farmers, bees as well as butterflies collect nectar from one plant to another leading to completion of the cross pollination circle in crops.
Crops that cross pollinate are said by agriculturists to yield more when compared to that which self-pollinate.
Environmental campaigners Friends of the Environment (FOTE) are calling for the government to take action to help boost bees’ resilience to climate change by strengthening the environmental policy strategy currently by the Ministry of Environment, Climate and Water.
An environmental activist from FOTE warns about “the impacts of climate change, which threatens to wipe out more bee species, affecting our ability to produce food”.
“Our wetlands and open farmland, usually hit by veldt fires and deforestation, could be particularly vulnerable to further declines in bee populations,” she says, adding: “Urgent action is needed to tackle climate change but the Government must also help bees and other wildlife adapt to changes already happening.”
“That means reducing other stresses by ensuring bees have plentiful and varied food sources and helping farmers reduce their reliance on chemical pesticides,” she explains.
The official from EMA says: “We take the issue of bee health very seriously. The issue is currently out for consultation and we urge people and groups to respond.”