UP EXPERT OPINION: Bees are vital for human health and food security

Posted on May 22, 2024

Bees, together with other insect pollinators, are vital for our well-being because they pollinate over 75% of the world’s leading food crops such as fruits, vegetables and nuts. In addition, without these pollinators pollinating the world, we wouldn’t enjoy the floral beauty of our landscapes.

Since 2018, each year on May 20 the world celebrates World Bee Day to raise awareness about the important role of bees in our eco-systems and food security. International Day for Biological Diversity is celebrated on 22 May to examine our relationship with nature and with other living organisms. Both days highlight the importance of pollinators like the honey bee, especially in Africa and in South Africa, as they provide essential services to our diverse eco-systems, from the fynbos in the Western Cape to the Lowveld in Mpumalanga. 

Beside preserving the beauty of our flora, bees also improve the food production of 2 billion small farmers worldwide, providing not only food security but also an income for farmers and households.

Pollinators come in all shapes and forms, from bees and butterflies to bats, birds, mammals and various other animals. All these animals collectively provide eco-system services to maintain biodiversity and food security.

The theme for this year’s World Bee Day is: “Bee engaged with Youth.” It seeks to emphasises global cooperation and engage young people in efforts to protect these vital species. By doing so, we safeguard food security, preserve agricultural livelihoods and combat biodiversity loss.

2024 has been labelled “the global election year” because 49% of the world’s population within 64 countries, including South Africa plus the European Union, is having elections. This presents us with an excellent opportunity to measure governments and political parties on their efforts in protecting our pollinators.

Local research and conservation efforts 

From a local perspective with global implications, the Social Insects Research Group at the University of Pretoria are investigating the population genetics of wild honey bees in South Africa with a view to making recommendations about the conservation of local populations. Bees have several threats that affects the colonies of commercial beekeepers, and whose effect on the wild population is poorly understood. We are monitoring the population densities of honey bee colonies in different habitats to establish a benchmark against which we will be able to assess the effect of parasites, climate change, pesticides and beekeeping practices on wild populations in the future.

Recently, we are the first to describe how sterols are transported in worker bees. Bees can only get sterols from plants and which are essential to produce the food for larvae and queen. We also showed that food affects the pheromone signals in African honey bees and how high temperature and pesticides affects flight ability in foraging bees. In further elucidating how, communication between honey bees and associated pests happens in the hive, we showed that the bee louse eavesdrop on the bees communication system and hitchhike’s on the bee to obtain nutritious food. We contribute to sustainable beekeeping and development on the African continent as been part of studies which shows how different beekeeping practices may affect the conservation of African honey bees and colony losses.

Join us at the Bee Day event that will be hosted by the Social Insects Research Group from UP’s Department of Zoology and Entomology on Thursday 23 May between 11h00 to 14h00 at the Piazza on the Hatfield campus.

For additional tips and suggestion how to get involved, please visit the:

By Professors Christian Pirk and Abdullahi Yusuf, lecturers at the Department of Zoology & Entomology and researchers at the Social Insects Research Group (SIRG)

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