Bee disease threatens food production

If bees go, we go - Image by © Stuart Westmorland/CORBIS

Albert Einstein is erroneously quoted as saying, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left”. Although nobody knows who said it first, it does indicate how important bees are.

Bees are a critical part of our food cycle, but a disease is wiping out entire colonies and hives in key areas in South Africa. A R20-billion industry – of pollination, honey, and beeswax – is in danger of vanishing.

Mike Allsopp of the Agricultural Research Council has been warning of a collapse of African bees for the past two decades. “Bees are more important than any other domesticated animal because they are indispensable when it comes to our food security.” But, he says, nobody listened and followed through with action.

Because the African bee is hardier than any other bee species and historically survived diseases, local beekeepers became complacent.

The problem is a bacterium that causes American foulbrood disease. The bacteria are ingested by larvae in bee colonies. These grow until they kill their hosts, leaving a corpse with more than 100-million infected spores. Other bees then get infected when they come to clean the hive and spread the bacterium, which can survive for half a century and only fire kills it.

The common practice among big producers, such as the United States, is to treat infected colonies with anti­biotics. This keeps the bees productive and kills off the immediate outbreak of foulbrood. But this presents the South African bee industry with a dilemma. Several local beekeepers say there is a split between those who want to use antibiotics and those who are worried about its dangers.

Brendan Ashley Cooper, a beekeeper and member of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association, says the solution is to “speed up natural selection” by killing any bees that exhibit symptoms. This leaves the stronger bees, which should hopefully become more resistant to foulbrood. “If we use antibiotics you mask the problem and the FBD will evolve until it is drug resistant.” The best solution is to find a colony of bees that have survived the disease and to use their resistance to save the local species.

Source: Mail & Guardian


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