Conservation and Beekeeping and How Conservation Beekeeping is a Misnomer

Conservation is the act of protecting Earth’s natural resources for current and future generations.

It is the protection and preservation of nature and wildlife. In South Africa, unlike in the UK and much of the rest of Europe, we still have wild honeybees. More than 90% of South Africa’s honeybees are wild. They are healthy, thriving and free. So we have a very different situation to that in the UK, in Germany, the Netherlands, and in most of Europe. And most importantly, we have hindsight, thanks to the European and UK examples. We have seen how their indigenous species of honeybees have gone extinct, and this has surprisingly happened under the watch of their nature conservation authorities. The advent of beekeeping, bee-farming, industrial agriculture, deforestation and urbanisation, has all been detrimental to the honeybee. The impact of agriculture, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, miticides (biocidal treatments) in their landscapes and in their hives, has led to a fundamental breakdown of entire ecosystems both within the hive, and outside of the hive. A 2020 survey by the British Beekeepers Association refers to the average loss of bee colonies to beekeepers across all surveys carried out by them as being 18.2%. Eighteen-point-two percent. (In some US States this figure is far higher at an average rate of  colony loss of 40%.) Why are we humans so fooled into thinking that as a species we are superior and more intelligent than all other life forms?

We are determined to not let the same happen to South Africa’s indigenous Apis mellifera capensis colonies, nor the Apis mellifera scutellata wild honeybee species.

Wild honeybee colonies that we have been monitoring over the past 8 years here in the Western Cape in SA simply do not suffer these losses. There is no sign of varroa mite, the size of the colony intimately follows the flow of flowers/forage, the winter rains bring out many more blooms in the fynbos vegetation region, and some thriving wild colonies even have drones through the winter. The nest sizes are small, and only so much excess honey is stored to tide the colony through bad weather, drought, fire and other unforeseen circumstances. There is no glut of honey. There is an intricate balance in their resources. To think that we can take their honey (and pollen and propolis and wax) and give them nougat or sugar water in exchange, and think we are not exploiting bees, is a total disregard and ignorance on our side. Honey is the bee’s food and nourishment. It is a fermented food, full of an incredible diversity of beneficial-to-the-bees microbes and nutrients. It is what they need to thrive and to produce healthy wax which is the substrate on which the colony sustains itself.

In SA, conservation is around the protection of these incredibly intelligent wild creatures. In our natural environments, the relationship between plants and bees has evolved over millions(!) of years. It is so fine-tuned and with regard for all other pollinators and species living in these environments. In SA we do not need to ‘conserve’ bees by exploiting them. Conservation is about safeguarding a species and the environments we still have! “Conservation beekeeping” here in SA is a misnomer when you take bees out of their wild and natural habitats, hive them, and take their honey and other hive products to sell in a market economy. In the UK and European examples, we imagine “conservation beekeepers” to be those who are concerned with reestablishing wild spaces full of natural nesting and forage opportunities. And encouraging honeybees once again to live freely without human intervention, and connected to all other species in an abundance of natural biodiversity.