Honeybees and The Great Fire of 1869 extending from Swellendam to Uitenhage

By Geoff Tribe

The devastating fires of 7 June 2017 extending over a distance of 125 kilometres from George to beyond Plettenberg Bay resulted in the loss of life of seven people, thousands of animals, and of much property.  On 6 June the speed of the hot Berg wind blowing from the north-west was recorded between 90km/h and 100km/h with gusts exceeding 110km/h which were responsible for fanning the fire which can superheat it in excess of 2000°C (Preston 2017). The first fire was reported near Knysna following in the wake of a fierce hot wind with over 50 fires following this and resulting in more than 10 000ha reduced to ash.  It will take many years for this region to recover, a region which relies heavily on tourism of its scenic attractions. But this is not the first time this region has experienced a devastating fire, and then over a much larger area. As we know from back then, the wild bees will survive after a fire, even if they are forced to abscond.

The Great Fire of 1869

Between the years 1862-1869 large parts of South Africa were experiencing a severe drought in which hundreds of thousands of sheep and other stock died (Du Preez). In early February 1869, following several weeks of exceptionally hot weather, a fierce hot bergwind blowing from the north fanned bushfires which had started all over the area from Swellendam in the west to Uitenhage in the east. The fires swept through the mountains, gorges and lower coastal plateau, one branch swept down a gorge and raced through the hills towards Knysna but by a miracle the wind changed and the town was saved from certain destruction (Van der Merwe 1998). During this fire 27 people died in the Humansdorp district alone and many elegant homes were razed to the ground while their occupants took refuge in dams and rivers, covering themselves with blankets against the falling cinders.

The belt of dense forests along the upper coastal plateau was hardly touched by the Great Fire, for fire seldom penetrates deep into moist forest (Van der Merwe 1998). Dry coastal forest, wooded valleys and isolated mountain forests were however totally destroyed.

  The Eastern Province Herald reported this disaster of unimaginable proportions:

In February 1869 the Herald reported that: “A correspondent in Knysna mentioned that the sun had just risen … when we had the sense that something unusual was going to happen. Between 9 and 10 o’clock a strange wind, unknown in these parts, started blowing. It was such a hot wind that a person could hardly go outdoors. A few hours later it appeared that our feeling had come true, because between 12 and 1 o’clock Plettenberg Bay was covered in thick smoke, soon we could see a tremendous fire; it looked as if the whole of Plettenberg Bay stood in ligte laaie [basically, as smoky as anything].

“The fire came from all sides so that in a moment Wittedrif, Ramdorings River and the whole area was one huge inferno, At Wittedrif the houses were fortunately saved but everything else was burnt. It was the same story everywhere, and people were only too relieved to have escaped with their lives. It was moving to hear the weeping and wailing of the women and to see the great confusion which reigned. The valleys, forests and caves were covered in such thick smoke that one didn’t know where to flee. Particularly pathetic was the sight of pigs, dogs, geese and chickens and even doves which had died in the flames. The intense heat forced birds to tumble out of the sky like leaves of a tree. Sheep died by the hundred as did buck in great numbers.

Some people who fled towards the sea were rescued by the wind changing direction. Jan Groenewald ran to the river with his wife and children where their lives were saved by sitting in a boat. The next day the whole world wore a huge black cloak. It was painful to see how earthly possessions were destroyed in just one day. It was fortunate that the fire did not break out at night because then it would almost certainly have occasioned loss of human life. For this reason many of cried out as did Job, ‘The lord giveth and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord’. Knysna was in great peril, at one stage all the forests around the town were burning fiercely. Then, suddenly, the wind changed and the town was saved”.

The huge loss of life and the destruction of property and the aftermath of the fire is vividly portrayed in other newspaper reports at that time where the fire was reported to have originated at Bedford where a farmer named Dixic was injudiciously burning rank grass during a high wind, which carried the flames along with fearful rapidity (see Papers Past).

Outeniqualand before the Great Fire

When the 1869 Great Fire swept through Outeniqualand there were no pine and eucalyptus plantations and no ploughed land except around certain homesteads, the forests being surrounded by great swathes of fynbos vegetation. The density of the forest and the many deep gorges across the coastal plateau with the rockbound sea coast caused early travellers in the area to instead use a more inland course through Pampoenkraal (Saarsveld) and into the Langkloof. Elephant trails were initially used to penetrate the forest but the Great Fire served to facilitate greater access to the region because it cleared the way for the completion of the coastal road system which created the Garden Route.

An indigenous forest

Historical records recount hundreds of elephants and buffalo which grazed on the grass in the coastal valleys and used the forest as shelter (Skead 2011; Van der Merwe 1998). Local memory recounts that elephants sought refuge in the sea during the fire, yet this could not be substantiated from records. The large animals were decimated over two centuries of hunting and farm expansion, with the last buffalo shot in 1883 (Van der Merwe 1998). No information appears regarding the presence or nesting localities of bats, of which the Egyptian fruit-bat is essential for the regeneration of forests by eating only fleshy fruit such as that of yellowwood where the fleshy part is removed and the pip is dropped, thus dispersing the seed.

South Africa is poorly endowed with natural forests with only 0.3% of the land afforested. These forests represent a relic of large coastal forests which dominated the Cape about five-million years ago under a tropical climate. The Mediterranean climate became established and has persisted for the last two million years when the tropical forests slowly gave way to sub-tropical thicket, grasslands and fynbos species (Newton 2009). Fires driven by hot, desiccating winds are the major agents that keep forests in check; forests shelter on the lee side of steep ridges or in narrow gorges where eddies branching from the main wind prevent the fires from burning down the lee slopes (Van der Merwe 1998). Such eddies do not develop on the gradual slopes of rounded hills which are consequently covered with fire-adapted fynbos. Dr John Phillips maintained that the extensive areas of Kuistervaring or Ystervaring (Gleichenia polypodioides) found in the Deepwalls forests are to be attributed to honey-hunters [burning out nests] and also to incendiaries aiming at burning portions that they might report the damage done, and thereafter buy the burned trees at a tariff less than normal (Skead 2011). The biomass of these Kuistervarings within the Pinus plantations, where they form a dense mat several meters deep, requires that each tree needs to be excavated to its base before it can be felled.

Preston (2017) explains the phenomenon of the ‘thermal wave’ as a sine wave flow of super-heated air associated with fires such as these. As heat from the fire rises it is blown horizontally by the wind over distances of 300m to 1000m before it touches down and ignites a new fire and then again bounces off downwind. As the superheated air descends, it heats everything before it which then erupts into flame spontaneously before any flame reaches the area. The immense pressure and heat of the descending air forces down the roof of a house and melts the glass and disintegrates the bricks, leaving a pile of rubble. Because the wave is able to jump over valleys and rivers, the effect appears random as single houses explode into flames while others remain unscathed.

The forests were under constant attack long before the early explorers arrived there with fire having played a major role in reducing their area, resulting in patches of isolated forest surrounded by grasslands or dense fynbos (Skead 2011). Dias, Da Gama and others have recorded that in the fifteenth century great smoke banks were seen from their vessels, the sun appearing as if veiled in a grey cloud; undoubtedly the Outeniquas were to some extent responsible for the first burning of some of the larger ‘eilands’ now existing – a work in which they were later assisted by elephant, buffalo and honey hunters (Skead 2011).

Origin of the name Outeniqua

The earliest records show that this region was inhabited by the semi-nomadic Outeniqua clan. According to Raper (2004), Outeniqua means ‘men who carry honey’ from ‘tou, t’hou, ou, recorded in 1752 for ‘honey’; teni, ‘carry’; qua, ‘men’. Tsitsikamma means ‘waters begin’ from tsoa-tsoa, ‘begin’, kamma, ‘water’ due to the high rainfall and the occurrence of many rivers and streams. The name Knysna is of Khoi origin and probably means ‘ferns’ or ‘fern leaves’. There are a number of other Quena names of places associated with honeybees which have survived (Tribe 1982; 1997).

However, Hromnik (2009) in a series of articles in the George Herald further elucidates on the origin of the name Outeniqua. In 1766 Jan Willem Cloppenburg recorded that “… the name Houteniquas, means houtini – to carry a bag, quas – men or people; because the people that live there carry in bags honey from the forests”. François le Vaillant in 1780-85 reported that the name “Auteniquoi” meant ‘men loaded with honey’ and confirmed that the local forests were full of honeybees. Hromnik’s interpretation is that the word Outeniqua consists of three component words: Ou-teni-qua (i.e., ‘/Hao-teni-qua’) meaning ’People Living United or in Harmony with Honeybees’. These Honeybee People, the Outeniquas, associated themselves with the honeybee as a symbolism of Mother Earth as found in other civilizations from India to Egypt.

Importation of English honeybees

The early settlers in Outeniqualand regarded the indigenous Cape bee as ‘… indolent, [and] thus good, muscular, wise and hardworking bees were sent for from England” (Du Preez). Replacing the indigenous honeybees of Southern Africa with docile European races (mainly the Italian bee) had been advocated and attempted from 1925 to 1942 as a government program which was finally abandoned only in 1965. This bee breeding station with Italian bees (Apis mellifera ligustica) was situated just below the Union Buildings in Pretoria. However in the 1970s on the removal of wild nests in Pretoria and the taking of cell measurements, no influence of these Italian bees could be discerned in the wild suburban population.  The presence of their genes in a milieu of Apis mellifera scutellata swarms was completely smothered. The rationale behind this was to breed a less aggressive and more productive race of bees. Yet all these attempts failed to establish European honeybee races in South Africa because they were outcompeted by the indigenous bees. It is now accepted that the indigenous races are adapted to the conditions of Africa. For example, the smaller size of the African bee which is linked to a shorter development period from egg to adult is an adaptation to meagre and erratic rainfall (resulting in short and erratic nectar flows) which may be taken advantage of by the local race having a faster developmental period in synchrony with the flow.

Henry Barrington of Knysna is first documented as importing bees, the Black English bee (Apis mellifera mellifera), in 1871 to his farm Portland.  This was not a success because “The English bees imported at the Knysna with Nutt’s hives, at great expense, finding the climate so genial – no winter, the flowers all the year round – refused to make honey, preferring a life of enjoyment to work” (Du Preez). It was probably more a case of insufficient forage needed for a much larger bee than laziness of behalf of the bees! This also indicates that he must have hived and kept the Cape bee as well. Presumably his bees also died in the inferno of the Great Fire which consumed his house and farm which he described as ‘complete’. Barrington imported two more hives of bees from London in March 1869 after the fire and continued multiplying his black bees until his death in 1882 (Du Preez). Because of the difficulty in transporting hives of bees by ship from England to Cape Town (a journey of at least 64 days) and on to Mossel Bay, then by cart to George and finally carried the 50 kilometres to Portland through dense undergrowth by two men (Du Preez), meant that only a limited number of hives must have been imported during this period.

Disappearance of forest ecotype of the Cape bee?

Thunberg in November 1772 passed through the Southern Cape and recorded that it was rich in honeybees and honey. In much later years, the presence of numerous wild honeybee colonies and their potential for commercial beekeeping was used in a prospectus to lure British settlers to the Outeniqua region. Yet today this region is not renowned as an exceptional area for honeybees even despite the many exotic eucalypts grown there. An intriguing theory for this discrepancy was recounted to me by Hennie Steyl, a forester and beekeeper from George. He suggests that after the Great Fire that the locally adapted ecotype of the indigenous Cape bee (Apis mellifera capensis) within the forest was destroyed and later replaced by the ecotype from the surrounding fynbos which moved into the area as the forest slowly regrew. Hence the noticeable incompatibility of the honeybees seen today within this region.

People living in harmony with Honeybees

The 2017 fire destroyed many hives of honeybees which will be replaced mainly by the time honoured South African way of placing out trap boxes for migrating swarms. Should these swarms originate mainly from the fynbos on the periphery of the forest, will this reinforce this incompatibility? More so, over time will the bee finally adapt to the forest biome even though today it is largely disjointed and does no longer cover the same area when the Outeniqua people collected honey to trade in times gone bye.


The intricacies of a forest system:

The author at work:

Geoff Tribe


Du Preez, F.M. (no date) A History of Beekeeping in South Africa. Office 444 Govan Mbeki Avenue, Port Elizabeth. pp201.

Hromník, C.A. (1997) Quena and the Kung: aka the Hottentots and Bushmen. Cape Times 29 September, pp8.

Hromník, C. A. (1999) The ethnonym Quena: The true name of the Hottentots. In: Actas del XX Congreso Internacional de Ciencias Onomásticas, Ed: Ana Isabel Boullón A Coruna, Galicia: Biblioteca Filolóxicca Galega, 202, pp1463-1480.

Hromník, C.A. (2007) Free the Ottentotu from the ideologues. Sunday Times 15 April 2007.

Hromnik, C.A. (2009) Outeniqua Quena & Mountains in the realm of Dik!areb. George Herald 18 June pp37; 23 July pp24; 27 August pp52; 24 September pp48; 29 October pp43; 28 January pp28; 4 February pp30.

Newton, I (2009) The future of Fynbos. Full Circle 6(11): 70.

Papers Past (internet) The Great Fire at the Cape of Good Hope. – Loss of Life and Destruction of Properties. Daily Southern Cross, Vol. XXV, Issue 3718, 18 June 1869.

Preston, G. (2017) Knysna Fires: Five factors that produced the perfect inferno.

Raper, P.E. (2004) New Dictionary of South African Place Names. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg & Cape Town. 421pages.

Skead, C.J. (2011) Historical Incidence of the larger Land Mammals in the broader Western and Northern Cape. (second edition). Centre for African Conservation Ecology, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. 519pages.

Tribe, G.D. (1982) Bees of the Outeniqua in 1781. South African Bee Journal 54(4): 91.

Tribe, G.D. (1997) Hottentot (Khoekhoen) place names associated with honeybees in southern Africa. South African Bee Journal 69(1): 3-6.

Van der Merwe, I. (1998) The Knysna and Tsitsikamma forests. Chief Directorate: Forestry, Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. 152 pages

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