Can Canola Production and Bees Co-exist?

Barely 20 years ago, canola was a mere thought among grain experts, but the crop quickly found its roots in many places in South Africa where the yellow flower proudly boasts post-summer promises of healthy cooking oil and spreads for fresh bread. Such a canola field is picture perfect as well as a magnet for any six-legged creature looking for pollen and nectar. Bees are pollinators that just cannot resist a canola field.

The year 2018 was a tough one for some farmers, especially the ones who farm with bees and offer pollinator services to crop producers. Just as the canola came into bloom, the bees in the Western Cape perished one by one. Upon closer inspection, it was found that the problem surfaced because profenophos was sprayed as a pesticide on the canola while in full bloom. Needless to say, it dealt a death blow to the bees and hundreds of colonies were destroyed. Understandably, it caused some bad blood between the bee farmers and canola producers, but thankfully the parties came to the table to resolve the matter.

The question is whether canola production is compatible with bees, especially given that insecticides are needed to protect the crop from harmful insects. In the last two years there have been massive plagues of African Bollworm and everyone is holding their breath for the destructive Fall Armyworm that thankfully hasn’t affected canola yet this season. Canola will have a tough time without insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, but does the use of these products negatively affect bees?

According to CropLife SA’s AgriIntel, there are 67 pesticides registered for use on canola. Herbicides are generally not poisonous to bees, and the same goes for most fungicides.  Insecticides, however, are mostly poisonous to bees regardless of the chemical class of the active ingredients. There are two ways in which bees can be poisoned by insecticides: firstly, through direct contact with the bee’s body, for instance when a bee flies into a spray drift, or if it lands in an area where the spray mixture is still wet.  Secondly, bees can ingest the pesticide, for instance when it’s drinking nectar or collecting pollen. Interestingly, direct contact with certain pesticides is often more dangerous to bees than oral ingestion. One needs to accept that all insecticides are poisonous to bees and that’s why we need to be extremely cautious when bees are working nearby the crop, especially canola that’s pollinated by bees.

All the insecticides that are registered for use on canola have special warnings to protect bees from being poisoned. The general precautions clearly specify that the insecticide may not be applied after flower bud formation, nor when bees are working nearby or in the crop. Technically, it is possible that insecticides can be applied without harming the bees if the label warnings are adhered to.

Canola, like any other crop, will be the target of harmful insects at some stage.  There are plenty six- and eight-legged creatures that want to partake in the meal that is the producer’s yield and the producer needs to outsmart them with pesticides. How on earth will the producer be able to tackle pests without harming the bees?  The answer lies in precision farming, in other words, there needs to be a paradigm shift in crop production, especially high value crops like canola.

Any canola producer should know what plant pests, diseases and weeds can do to his crop in the coming season. It is therefore necessary to plan ahead for any possible pests and decide which pesticides will be needed. Note that only pesticides registered for canola and the anticipated pests should be applied.  An important aspect of pest control is regular monitoring.  Unfortunately, this is not done often enough, and before the producer can wipe his eyes his canola fields are filled with caterpillars ploughing through it like packtrains. Prior knowledge is a formidable weapon against pests, for instance if swarms of moths are spotted late afternoon then alarm bells should go off as a Lepidoptera infestation is likely on its way. Such pests usually appear early in the production season and can be managed with pesticides without affecting bees as there aren’t any flowers to collect nectar and pollen yet. If monitoring isn’t done, the pests are discovered too late to manage it in an environmentally sustainable manner and it will be catastrophic for bees who are exposed to these insecticides during pest control attempts.

The producer must also familiarise himself with the available pesticides. AgriIntel ( lists virtually all pesticides that are registered in South Africa on all crops.  By utilising the search engine, a producer can determine exactly which pesticide is needed. Unfortunately, agents do sometimes make incorrect recommendations, therefore producers should look at the label and verify if the product is registered for canola.  The fiasco early in 2018 was caused because agents recommended profenophos, which isn’t registered for canola, to be applied in full bloom. Responsibility for the correct and responsible use of pesticides reside with the agents as well as the producers.

When it’s necessary in a crisis to manage pests in canola, then the producer needs to ensure that there aren’t any bee hives in sight. CropLife SA supports the rollout of a new app named BeeMap Africa, that serves as a link between bee farmers and crop producers.  Both parties register and enter their hives or crops on the app. When the crop producer needs to apply pesticides, he makes a note on the app and the bee farmer will be notified automatically so that the hives can be removed from the danger zone. The app is still in the development phase and can be tested by contacting Oscar Mandleier on 082 388 0170.

One of the most important aspects is to always follow the label instructions. Every pesticide is developed for a specific purpose, in other words, to address a specific problem on a specific crop. If the pesticide is applied for a problem or crop other than that for which it was developed, then negative consequences are unavoidable.

CropLife South Africa promotes the responsible use of pesticides by encouraging an easy saying: Just follow the label. This means that regardless of what anyone recommends, the label must remain the guideline according to which the pesticide is used.

Bees are inextricably part of agriculture and are critically important as pollinators for many of the world’s crops and flowers. If canola producers and bee farmers can work together to share information about spray programmes and hive locations, then both parties will reach their goal of sustainable agricultural production. CropLife South Africa will embark on an awareness campaign in the coming year, in cooperation with crop producers and bee farmers in order to ensure that bees are protected. For more information, keep an eye on our website

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