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Bee colonies kept naturally face fewer problems

Honey bees deliver an important food item: honey. It represents an essential food source especially in developing countries. Plant pollination by bees plays an even more important role. Therefore, bees contribute to economic success in agriculture and to ecological balance in nature. During the past decades, more and more bee colony losses have occurred worldwide. Some even speak about “bee death”. However, the situation is not the same everywhere.

In Europe, as a rule, 10% to 20% of the bee colonies die over winter. Periodically, losses in some countries reach up to 50%. In the USA, annual losses are considerably higher, and winter losses comprise 20% - 30% or even more. But in many regions of Central and South America as well as in Central Africa, the situation is totally different. Though losses occur sporadically also in these regions, they are less severe. Nobody there would call them a problem. For this reason it is worthwhile to find out the differences and their causes to eventually develop new strategies.

A series of causes are held responsible for bee colony losses. One important cause seems to be the changed agriculture, with more and more monoculture. The loss of biodiversity means unvaried nutrition for the bees, thus making them more susceptible to diseases. Moreover, intensive agriculture requires the repeated application of pesticides. Especially highly toxic substances for insects like the neonicotinoids contribute to the generally unfavourable conditions for bees. However, according to a large number of examinations, crucial factors are the diseases that the bees face because of global bee trade. Among them are the parasites originating from Asia: the mite Varroa destructor and the intestinal fungus Nosema ceranae. Neither of these cause any problems for the indigenous Asian honey bee, Apis cerana, which has developed various defence mechanisms over the course of evolution. Weakening of colonies and colony losses have happened only with the European races of Apis mellifera honey bees imported during the last century. Everywhere, the importation of bee races that are neither adapted to climatic nor foraging conditions has contributed to the deterioration of the general situation of beekeeping.

So-called ‘modern’ frame hives await distribution in tropical Africa
Photos © Bees for development

Africanised bees in tropical America are less susceptible to diseases than bees of European origin

In South and Central America, the situation is totally different. Originally, there were no honey bees in America. Only at the beginning of the 15th century, the first bees were imported by settlers. These European species were not perfectly adapted to the climatic conditions of tropical regions in America. Therefore, during the 1950s, African bees could spread very rapidly from Brazil over South and Central America until the South of the USA. These Africanised bees are more ‘aggressive’ but less susceptible to diseases than the European bee races. They are much more resistant, especially against the Varroa mite. Contrary to North America and Europe, Varroa control is therefore unnecessary in many South American countries. The situation is even more different in Central Africa: the Varroa mite existing there for more than a decade is still unknown in many regions or has been disregarded because it causes neither damages nor losses.

In tropical and subtropical regions, the preconditions for the Varroa mite would seem much more favourable than in North America and Europe. On one hand, its multiplication chances are better because of the bees’ uninterrupted brood rearing. On the other hand, the mites in the sealed brood cells can be controlled less easily by chemical substances. Besides the climatic conditions, also the differences between the various bee races cannot sufficiently explain the discrepancies in Varroa tolerance: according to various examinations, the known characteristics concerning parasite tolerance seem to be developed similarly strongly. Important differences could not be identified either regarding grooming, i.e. the removal of mites from the body, nor regarding brood hygiene, i.e. the removal of mites from the brood.

Other contexts must therefore be important. This is especially obvious when in a region with the same climate and the same bee race, discrepancies occur between different management methods. This could be shown in South America for Brazil, in North Africa for parts of Tunisia as well as in East Africa for Ethiopia. Wherever the bees are kept in socalled “modern” frame hives, like Langstroth hives, the risk of losses has been higher than in apiaries with so-called “traditional” hives. Here in fact, the type of hive is less important than its size. Because in small hives bees swarm more often, and earlier. In so-called “modern” apiaries, everything is done to achieve a maximum honey yield. This management principle is orientated towards large colonies, and varies from the preference of artificial swarms to prevention of swarming by every mean. It is often supported by breeding attempts towards high foraging activity and reduced swarming instinct. Opposite to this are the small farmers’ management methods in parts of South and Central America, as well as in East Africa. Here beekeeping is more orientated towards the multiplication of colonies by swarming, and keeping bees in smaller hives. The more effective hygienic behaviour is due to a good relation between space and number of bees, as well as the steady renewal and selection by swarming, making the colonies less susceptible. So, the apiaries under so-called “modern” management may produce higher honey yields per colony, but their operation is more work- and cost-intensive. Especially the medicines needed for the control of diseases but also the investment costs for the purchase of “modern” hives and the logistical costs of transport and maintenance require additional finance. All in all, beekeeping in “modern” apiaries shows a more negative balance. Moreover, the necessary small credits and the accompanying indebtedness of beekeepers converting from so called ‘traditional and natural’ to so-called “modern” beekeeping has to be taken into account.

Extensive, natural beekeeping underway in Zambia: the possibility to swarm naturally contributes to colony health
Photos © Bees for development

In future, these contexts should be observed in development assistance. It should aim at maintaining traditional natural management methods with small hives and multiplication by swarming. Hive systems with movable combs are recommended, because they enable to control the actual condition of the bee colonies. The hives should preferably be produced of naturally available resources like wood, straw or dung. The management method should also be adapted to climatic conditions. For example, if there are longer periods without nectar flow, e.g. because of drought, it is better to extract the honey only afterwards. And it is always better to support swarming instead of preventing it. The beekeeping systems developed in North America and Europe do not assist the small farmers in Africa nor in South and Central America. They even produce problems and losses. Therefore, it is better to follow a proper way and to find an African solution, for example. Though this will not solve all problems of beekeeping, it is an important step towards a better, more bee compatible future.

Dr. Wolfgang Ritter Bees for the world, Expert of the World Organisation for Animal Health, Freiburg, Germany ritter@beehealth.info