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A world without bees would be disastrous

- Buhle Zuma

Declining bee colonies puts industry totaling R20-billion at risk, including Western Cape's fruit industry with its 77 800 hectares of fruit farms.

The majority of South Africans are not aware that the industrious bees that pollinate crops that give us some of our daily food like apples, mangos and onions are diminishing in numbers.

The Western Cape has reportedly lost more than 40% of its bees and there are simply not enough wild bees to render services to the numerous farms that produce food for domestic and international markets.

The decline in bee colonies is due to several factors such as climate change, the destruction of bee habitats by humans and, of course, the widely reported American foulbrood disease that until this year was thought to not affect African bees.

Given the importance of bees in the agricultural sector and business, academics and environmental accountants are putting the undervalued bee in the spotlight and calling for greater efforts to protect bees.

Jill Atkins, visiting Professor at the Wits School of Accountancy, and Professor Warren Maroun from Wits recently spoke about their research on businesses and bees. 

The research forms part of an international projected led by Atkins and Maroun who authored the South African chapter that examined the disclosures on pollination services by local companies and the steps being taken to assist with conserving bees and other pollinating insects.

Atkins said the project was motivated by several developments including learning about areas in China where all the bees have disappeared and farmers have to pollinate by hand.

Bees are a financial factor for investors and through dialogues “investors are now engaging directly with big companies to see what they are doing to address bee decline”. Atkins said the global economic contribution of bees was estimated to be at US$217 billion in 2008 and the financial impact of bee decline in the United States is US$15 billion.

“If bees disappeared, The Economist estimates that it would cost US$90 billion to pollinate the crops by hand in a year in the US.”

As someone interested in sustainability issues in accounting and finance, Atkins has mobilised a team of international experts to take a serious look at bees.

“The significant role played by bees in South African agriculture is clearly evident when considering the Western Cape fruit industry is home to just over half of the country’s 77 800 hectares of deciduous fruit farms,” said Maroun.

An industry totaling R20-billion is at risk

“The pivotal role being played by honeybees begs the question: What are companies in the South African food and agriculture sectors reporting to their stakeholders?” asked Maroun who authored the South African chapter for the international project.

Analysing bee disclosures by South African companies, Maroun found that the corporates integrated or annual reports of these well established companies had limited disclosures dealing with pollination ecosystem services.

“If there is a financial issue relating to bees then companies should be reporting it and qualifying it and try to come up with some estimates for how it could potentially affect them. That’s where we start from an accounting point of view,” argued Atkins.

Integrated reports are an important indication of corporate governance and corporate responsibility.

“Integrated reporting is based on the notion of integrated thinking and the idea that companies have to look at all aspects of risk and strategy in an integrated manner.”

“Integrated thinking means that environmental issues and issues of biodiversity and bees for examples, and all other species, are part of an integrated approach,” argued Atkins who is permanently based at the Henley Business School, University of Reading, UK.

The full research findings will be published in a book titled: The Business of Bees: An integrated Approach to Bee Decline and Corporate Responsibility and is expected to hit the shelves in February 2016.

The book covers a range of scientific and financial aspect of bees including a chapter on the influence of bees on the political and cultural life of human society.

Folklore, religion, music, mythology is replete with accounts on the role of bees. Napoleon saw bees as a symbol of power and many songs have been written about bees.

The preservation of bees should be everyone’s business, imagine a world without the beautiful flowers and perfume!