By Karin Sternberg and Jenny Cullinan
In Africa we live in one of the most species-rich, diverse, and most beautiful continents on the planet. Our lives are intricately connected to nature, from the food we eat, to the water we drink, to the air we breathe, to the soil in which we plant our food, and to the sheer spiritual solace we can find in nature. These natural processes are intimately linked to pollinators; those insects, birds, butterflies, beetles, rodents and even lizards which are abundant in our biologically diverse landscapes. Bees are the most important pollinators and on World Bee Day we have much to celebrate here in Africa.
Unlike the rest of the world we still have truly wild spaces. These range from indigenous forests to natural hedgerows, grasslands, arid and semi-arid areas, and the many diverse patches of unique and rare wildflowers. Within these areas we have a diversity of wild bees. There are leafcutter bees, ground-nesting bees like the tiny metallic halictid bees, bees nesting in abandoned snail shells, carpenter bees making their cavities in wood, longhorn bees with their long antennae, bees using masticated leaves and quartz grains in resinous structures as nests, stingless bees with their little pots of energy, to wild honeybees.
Yes. WILD honeybees. Not bees in boxes. Not bees in log hives or any other human-made structure. Unlike the rest of the world, here in Africa we still have indigenous honeybees living in the wild and in their totally natural habitats. These natural habitats are the strength of Africa’s wild honeybees. Natural habitats are thriving ecosystems in which the honeybees are the ecosystem engineers, modifying environments to make these inhabitable for numerous other creatures and therefore contributing to bio-intensity in remarkable ways.
Whether their nests are under rock, or in tree cavities or under brush, this is the natural habitat of wild honeybees. It is this diverse habitat with these complex interactions that have helped Africa’s wild bees to remain resilient. It is within these wild habitats that honeybees have continually adapted through natural selection and genetic strength to changes in their environments, and adapted and evolved to changes in climate. They are able to deal with pathogens and mites without human interference.
When one sees how different the worlds of wild honeybees are to hived honeybees – and hived honeybees were once wild – and how we as humans have so fundamentally contributed to the demise of honeybees by taking bees out of the wild and putting them in boxes and managing them, then perhaps one will understand why we so vehemently and passionately want to protect bees in their natural habitat and protect and preserve and grow these natural spaces.
With every box or human-made structure that we put bees into, with every bit of managing of the bees and bee-breeding that we do, we are repeating the same mistakes of continents like Europe, which has lost most of their wild and indigenous bee species. It saddens us to see that until now every so-called “bee conservation” project or “save the bee” project is about putting bees in boxes. And it doesn’t end with the box. “Saving the bee” projects are also about taking and selling the bees’ honey, which is the bees’ food full of their diverse gut bacteria and microbes. Their honey is their health; it is their vitality, their energy, and their immunity. The boxes are also moved around as pollination units; moved around from one apiary site to the next stressing bees, yet proclaiming to “save biodiversity”. Sadly, particularly in Africa, many “save the bee” projects are backed by international and well known NGOs. Here in South Africa several beekeepers and other organisations are claiming to do the same.
We all know that habitat loss leads to species being deprived of their natural home. Taking honeybees out of the wild and putting them in other structures is their habitat loss. Habitat loss destabilises the world’s ecosystems by disrupting the complex interactions between the mutually-dependent organisms that coexist there. As such, habitat loss represents arguably the greatest threat to biodiversity. It also represents the greatest threat to honeybees.
Honeybees are a keystone species. Taking them out of the wild, out of this web of interconnections, represents one of these great threats to biodiversity.
Bee conservation is more than the conservation of wild honeybees. It is about the conservation of all the organisms that exist with the honeybee within its natural nest and within each ecosystem. If the wild honeybees go extinct in Africa, so does the fauna and flora and all the microbes that are dependent on the wild honeybee.
On this World Bee Day, let us recognise the importance of protecting all of our wild bees. All bee species are critical pollinators and integral to entire ecosystems. They directly impact our human well-being, our nutrition, and the life support systems of our environments. Africa is rich with such diversity and such health. South Africa is home to an incredible(!!) diversity of bees. We are so lucky. Go out with wonderment on this day to look at Africa’s wild bees, whether in your gardens, towns, farms or wild spaces. Bees are beautiful and fascinating to study, each with their own character and unique behaviours. Bee-watch like others bird-watch. Look for patterns in their behaviour and maybe they will reveal something extraordinary to you; they might reveal some of their secrets. We know so little about these crucial pollinators. There is so much to discover.