Poisons pose a risk to bees

Honey bees are at risk of poisons, both in urban and rural settings.

Beekeepers fear a toxic substance from an unknown source killed thousands of honey bees in the Little Mowbray-Rosebank area a fortnight ago, and they have appealed to the public to be aware of the kind of poisons they use in their gardens.

Rosebank resident and veteran beekeeper Nick Hitge was horrified to discover thousands of bees from a hive he keeps at home lying dead or dying two weeks ago.

Many of the hive’s tens of thousands of bees were “crawling” around, a behaviour suggesting they had been poisoned.

Another beekeeper in the area, who declined to speak to the media, had encountered the same problem, Mr Hitge said.

“The City council sprays the pavements, but, as far as I understand, this chemical is not harmful to insects. It is very difficult to say where this poison came from. But we know it is was from close by, as bees do not venture more than a kilometre beyond the hive,” Mr Hitge said.

Having kept bees for some three decades, both in Pretoria and Cape Town, Mr Hitge said it was the first time he had encountered poisoning of this kind in the Little Mowbray-Rosebank area.

“I understand these things can happen, but I wish to appeal to the public to use bee-friendly spray for the sake of the environment.”

Well-known commercial bee farmer Brendan Ashley Copper said that a few years ago he had encountered a similar phenomenon.

“The bees were dying over a large area, from Lakeside to the Constantia Valley and Tokai. I suspected that poisons that were being sprayed were somehow entering the groundwater, but I never got to the bottom of it.

“In Nick’s and the other beekeeper’s case, I suspect that it is bigger than someone spraying poison on a single tree. It would be interesting to get Parks and Forests or the SABS to test the groundwater in the area to see if there are any poisons in it.”

Dr Gerhard Verdoorn, of the Griffon Poison Information Centre, said it was “likely” the poison had been used in a nearby garden.

“One of the great battles we have is that people use poisons off-label (situations when a registered chemical is used in a manner that is not specified on the product label),” Dr Verdoorn said. “There is a chemical, Imidacloprid, which is highly controversial. When it is applied correctly, it doesn’t cause any harm to insects, but people tend to spray it directly onto flowering plants, which of course are pollinated by bees. It will definitely affect them badly.”

The public were also often too quick to lay down poisons to get rid of ants without thinking of the consequences for bee populations, he said.

“You will also get instances where people want to get rid of bees which have formed a hive in or on the roof. Instead of getting a professional to come in to remove the bees, they are killed using poisons. The problem is that this poison remains for some time.”

People also doused pieces of fruit in toxic substances to lure unwanted bees, he said.

South Africa’s bee populations are already under serious threat. The killer bacterial disease, foulbrood, which attacks bee larvae, killed millions of bees in the Western Cape last year, with some experts estimating that as much as 40 percent of the provincial population was wiped out during this period.