The theft and vandalisation of beehives in South Africa are nothing new. In fact, it is on the rise. Commercial, small-scale and hobbyist beekeepers constantly have to face arriving to a scene – something that can only be described as a massacre – of broken hives, stripped of honey and no sight of the swarm of bees.
Xander Rautenbach, beekeeper and owner of Rautenbach Apiaries and the Badger’s Gold honey brand, knows this all too well. Around his workshop continually lies a stack of broken hives; some pieces might be salvageable, but the majority will become firewood.
Thieves are getting smarter by the minute. Bee stings are not such a big threat for them anymore, they come in with their own version of protective gear
This year alone he has had asset losses of over R100 000, and just one incident of theft last week in the Eastern Cape makes up for more than 50% of 2019’s losses.
Hives are stolen and vandalised to make a homemade traditional beer that is sold for a quick buck. One hive can produce 200 litres of beer but the reality is the cost of constructing one hive, the honey and obtaining the swarm is worth much more than the traditional beer’s going price.
It is an in intoxication of complete loss, even for the thief.
According to Rautenbach the thieves are getting smarter by the minute. Bee stings are not such a big threat for them anymore, they come in with their own version of protective gear and use axes to break open the hives and often just dump the honeycomb and bees in a bag with complete disrespect of nature and blatant disregard of cultural beliefs.
Traditionally, in the Xhosa and Pedi culture, receiving a visit from a swarm of bees is seen as a message from the ancestors. In Xhosa culture it is seen as a message that the family should do something for the ancestors (for example, brew umqombothi), and if the bees produce honey while visiting the combs will be removed, placed on small branches and then consumed, but words of respect will be said to the bees to persuade them to leave. In Pedi culture bees in your yard is seen as a symbol of the ancestors bringing luck to the family, a beer called mashifa is prepared and the ancestors are then summoned yet the bees are never chased away or killed, they are left in peace. (Source: South African National Biodiversity Institute).
But finding a swarm in your yard is unfortunately not so apparent these days anymore. Urban areas, and regions where there are a lot of livestock traffic, are depleted of the natural elements bees need for survival and unfortunately, instead of finding a swarm in your yard, it has become a lot more common to instead find a thief at your swarm. Or rather the remains the thieves have left as they usually strike at night when the bees are in a state of confusion, which often leads to the swarms breaking up and fleeing in different directions.
This is a familiar problem for all beekeepers in South Africa.
Rautenbach predicts that the ongoing theft and vandalisation will result in dire outcomes not only for beekeepers, but also for consumers.
He says, “Prices for local honey is already under pressure because of imports. Local honey will become more and more difficult to produce and the prices will have to go up, which will leave the consumer leaning towards the more affordable option of imported honey (which can only be described as syrup). Hobby and small-scale beekeepers will become less and due to theft commercial beekeepers are just balancing the scales, they can never fully recover from each year’s losses.”
Ultimately, this also results in job losses for those employed by beekeepers.
But it is not only affordable and good quality honey that the consumer can miss out on, alongside our ongoing drought, it also plays a pivotal role in the rest of the food we eat in terms of fresh produce.
“Pollination for soft fruit, seed production and nuts like macadamia (the fastest growing tree crop in South Africa) will have extreme difficulties in obtaining beehives for their pollination needs. This will have a direct effect on food security for South Africans.”
The South African Bee Industry Organisation (SABIO) has been involved with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to review and redraft key aspects of the legislation to promote and protect the beekeeping industry in the country.
According to Mike Allsopp, a senior researcher within the Honeybee Research Section of the Agricultural Research Council, there is a lack of responsibility and action from government. While various acts and regulations might exist, the legislation is not enforced and efforts to mitigate risks can push beekeeping operating costs up by 30-40% relative to elsewhere. (Source: www.climatefruitandwine.co.za)
Rautenbach Apiaries supply the agricultural sector with commercial services, distribute bee products locally through Badgers Gold (a national brand) and operates Apiarista Bee Farm which offers special educational tours for groups and schools who want to gain a better understanding of the African honeybee. His badger-friendly raw honey is one of the more affordable ones out there in South Africa as Rautenbach believes that the product should be accessible to all.
But with the ongoing thefts and vandalism buzzing through the agricultural industry how much longer will it be accessible to all? How much longer will it be accessible even to those who can afford to pay a bit more?
We are making our voices heard for the plight of the rhino in South Africa. We shout at the top of our lungs for lions, elephants, pangolins and all our wild animals, our natural heritage. But when will the African honeybee get the same respect? When will the legislation protect the small insect that is responsible for a third of our food?