Monday, July 13, 2015

My hypothesis on helping the bees - natural antibiotics

A bee enjoying the flower of the ribbon bush - Hypoestes aristata
I was watching the clip about AFB disease in the Western Cape on the TV program Carte Blanche, when I had a thought that is probably not original, but may well be an idea that farmers and beekeepers could bear in mind. Many beekeepers in the world believe the answer to diseases in the hive is to strengthen the bees naturally. They have a "survival of the fittest" approach. It is quite widely believed that there are many factors that have weakened bees, for example, the use of antibiotics, insecticides, feeding bees sugar, the use of chemicals in hives, monocultures, stress etc. When the one beekeeper who was interviewed  said that the only way to get rid of American foulbrood disease is to use antibiotics, I realised that in natural, wild areas the bees get all the antibiotics they need from plants and these plants are missing in the urban and agricultural environment.
Because I am a phytotherapist (medical herbalist) I have a garden full of medicinal plants. Many of these plants have excellent antibacterial properties as well as antifungal and antiviral properties. I use these all the time for my patients instead of life destroying antibiotics. (Antibiotics are rarely used to save a life these days, they are more commonly used as routine panaceas to a gullible and ignorant public. If people understood the effects of antibiotics on their microflora, they wouldn't be so quick to demand them. Doctors in South Africa shouldn't be dishing them out like sweeties either.)Antibiotics, whether used on man or insects, cause genetic changes which result in resistance. In humans this resistance can last for two years or longer from one course of antibiotics. It stands to reason that people who are continually taking antibiotics will have stronger resistance genes and weakened immune systems than those who rarely take them. The same applies to insects.
So my theory is that by improving  biodiversity for bees on farms and at apiaries, using medicinal herbs with antibiotic properties, bees would be getting a dose of medicine quite regularly throughout the seasons. Even those that are used to pollinate orchards, when removed from the orchard they could have a spell in a medicinal herb garden area, designed to keep them healthy.
I am sure that some beekeepers will have already made the connection between bee health and the bees' environment. For instance are bees that feed on Eucalyptus healthier than those that feed on apple blossom? Are bees that feed on fynbos generally healthier? I can't answer these questions but I think beekeepers should be enquiring as to whether all bees irrespective of where they are, are prone to American foulbrood, or are some less affected?
Here in SA we have stripped the countryside of it's natural biodiversity by removing nearly all the natural flora and replacing it with monoculture crops( like canola). We don't have fields full of yarrow as one sees in Europe, or thyme in the grass and Echinacea in the parks. In fact most of our suburban parks and gardens have only shrubs, grass and trees. There are very few wild areas left so the aromatic fynbos herbs are limited, compared to how it was before agriculture ruined the land. We also don't have the same flora as in Europe, which has survived because it is native or naturalised to the region and grown everywhere, on sidewalks and fields and gardens. Imagine my surprise to see Echinacea growing in a dry looking flowerbed at a petrol station in the Czech republic! (Echinacea by the way is native to North America).
It is no coincidence that aromatic herbs have antimicrobial properties, due to the essential oils in the leaves and flowers. Bees also love these plants eg rosemary, sage, thyme and lavender. These plants are not native to South Africa, but should be grown a lot more to supplement medicinal benefits for the bees. In the case of rosemary and lavender, they are hardy and drought tolerant. In European botanical gardens one often sees the most stunning thyme beds literally swarming with bees. Thyme has antifungal and antimicrobial properties. Echinacea, once established is very hardy and reasonably drought tolerant. It is the mainstay of any antibiotic treatment in herbal medicine and bees love it. They wriggle their way between the spiky flower heads, (which seems to be quite a struggle), in order to get the pollen they want.

My opinion is, that we need to enhance the bees' immunity by planting flowers with antibiotic, antifungal and immune enhancing properties. Some indigenous plants might well do this, but in urban and agricultural areas there is not enough fynbos to do this. So we must embrace the herbs that we know have the phytochemicals they need for enhanced immunity. Some of these are:

Sage; Rosemary; Thyme; Echinacea; Tulbachia (wild garlic); Garlic; Lavender; Buchu; Marjoram; Thuja; Myrtle; Olive; Eucalyptus, Garlic chives, Coriander; Aniseed; Fennel; Caraway; Rue; Yarrow; Artemisia spp; Juniper; Plectranthus neochilus; Hyssop. Strongly aromatic plants and plants with resin are the types of plants to look out for. Some aloes might have antimicrobial properties, but I don't know which ones, apart from Aloe vera. Aloes are important winter flowers for bees, as well as Cotyledon orbiculata (plakkie) flowers

Plant in big clumps, not dotted all over the place. Bees prefer to forage in an area where plants are in masses. Spread the word among your friends and neighbours. It's not enough to be bee-friendly, we need to get the right plants in place for their medicinal requirements.