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No bees, no fruit

Most people associate bees with beestings and honey, but few stop to ponder the consequences to the availability of everyday fresh produce is bees were to disappear.

Bees are the small, unsung heroes of fruit and fresh produce production in general, as without their invaluable service as flower or blossom pollinators, production of these crops will be considerably less successful.

When you bite into an apple or chew on a handful of blueberries, have you ever considered that for these fruits to exist, a bee visited each of these blossoms?

Fruit trees like pears, apples, peaches, prunes, apricots, and many other crops are not self-pollinating and, therefore, bees are needed for successful pollination. It is estimated that bees are required for the pollination of over 50 different crop types in South Africa.

Pollination is the movement of pollen from the anthers of a flower to the stigma of the same or a different flower. Honeybees can collect as many as 40 000 pollen grains on their bodies! Once po.llination occurs, the fertilized flowers produce seeds, which enable the plant to reproduce and form fruit

bees, bee pollination, pollination, fruit trees.
Illustration of the bee pollination process

When it comes to the production of fresh produce, the Western Cape is certainly bountiful and the region also has its own indigenous species of bees, the Cape Honeybee (Apis mellifera Capensis).

The natural habitat of the Cape Honeybee is in the fynbos biome of the Western Cape, and stretching as far east as Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

These bees play a vital role in the agricultural sector as the pollinators of flowering plants, including many fynbos species and a wide variety of pollination-dependent food crops as well as in the production of honey. 

In South Africa, the value added to crops using honeybees in paid pollination services is over R4 billion per annum, of which almost R2 billion is from deciduous fruit crops.

As much of the country’s deciduous fruit is produced in the Western Cape, the role of bees as pollinators is particularly important in the province and of the approximately 160 000 beehives in South Africa, around 45% of these are in the Western Cape.

Recent data shows that 94-98% of all insect visitors to deciduous fruit trees in the Western Cape’s Boland area were honeybees, and that honeybees made up more than 98% of actively pollinating insects.

Photo: Dewald Kirsten

So, you might ask, how does the pollination process work on fruit farms? Fruit growers require this invaluable service from bees only in a short period during the flowering development phase of fruit crops. This is when the bees usually make a brief but vital service provider visit to fruit farms. These visits are generally only for one to two weeks. This varies due to temperature as cool weather extends the blossoming period of fruit trees, while warm weather shortens this period.

Most growers arrange for bee farmers to bring their hives to the farm for this time, but there are also farms that keep and maintain their own hives year-round.

Bees are in a reproductive phase during spring and their need for both pollen and nectar is what motivates them to pollinate the blossoms.

The temperature and timing of the placement of the hives in the orchards is also very important. If they arrive before the blossoms are open, they will forage for food further afield and might skip the blossoms even when they start opening.

If the temperature during the flowering period is cooler than the optimal temperature for bee activity, the farmers need to place more hives per hectare to ensure sufficient crop pollination.

Photo: Dewald Kirsten

So, while we might be wary of bees for their capacity to sting, we owe these small, hardworking insects a huge debt of gratitude for their crucial role in the production of fresh produce, the most important part of our diet. As a bonus, they also give us delicious and nutritious honey!

Article by Jacques Burger & Louise Brodie

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