World Bee Day Blot. (A stain on bee day.)

by Karin Sternberg

World Bee Day always reminds us how little honeybees are understood, and just how much this Bee Day is exploited globally by businesses to sell this insect’s food (honey) under the guise of “loving bees” and “supporting their health and well-being by buying local and sustainable honey!”. 

Honeybees are wild animals and thrive in their natural habitat and in cavities that support diversity. Their nest sites flourish with other creatures including ants, spiders, wax moth and wax moth larvae, pseudoscorpions, ground running beetles and an abundance of microbial life. They choose nest sites here in the fynbos in cavities that survive fire, and their natural nests are small and far apart. On average in the wild there is 1 colony per square kilometre. They produce and store just enough honey in wax comb to tide over periods of dearth and to survive the days after a fire until the early post-fire plants start flowering. When beekeepers take colonies out of their natural nest sites and biomes, and put them into hives, honeybee colonies lose all of this incredible diversity and are managed by the beekeeper, exploited to make more honey than they would naturally, and all of their symbiotic relationships with other creatures and microfauna are lost. Very often these colonies are moved around by beekeepers for pollination services. They are forced to pollinate crops in a monocultural landscape instead of having a diversity of pollen and nectar that they need to thrive, and they are stressed by exposure to pesticides and disease. 

Bees play a critical role in our environments, and are very much responsible for biodiversity and the food we eat. If you really are buzzing with a love for bees on World Bee Day and are concerned about THEIR well-being, then it would be far better to not support the beekeepers that are taking the bees out of wild spaces, and taking away the food of a critical species to bottle and sell, very often replacing their honey with a bottle of sugar water for them to feed on, which contributes to an immune system in bees that is fundamentally compromised. Beekeepers are also often unknowingly crashing fragile ecosystems of pollinator networks like the solitary bee species and butterflies and wasps and moths and flies and all other pollinators, by placing too many hives in areas already supporting wild honeybee colonies and other pollinators. When just one hive is brought into an area unnaturally, it makes for on average 25000 more bees to feed. Very often more than one hive is placed in an area, with no thought for the pollinators already there. In South Africa we are fortunate in that most of the honeybees (more than 90% of colonies) are still living in the wild, unlike in Europe and the Americas where almost 99% of all honeybees live in sterile hives.  We need to ferociously protect honeybees as a (healthy) wild species in their natural habitats in SA. 

Far better on World Bee Day would be for businesses to say that because they love bees they would like to make the consumer aware of all the sweet alternatives; be it dates or date syrup, barley malt syrup or molasses or apple syrup or maple syrup or golden syrup or the myriad of other sweeteners. Then they really can say that they care about bees on World Bee Day. World Bee Day is about the bees. It is not about the beekeepers and it is not about honey sales.


Gardening for Bee Biodiversity

Bees are a highly evolved and intelligent species, first appearing when the dinosaurs were around, dating back more than 120 million years! Insects generally make up the bulk of life on earth, so as Prof Dave Goulson says, they are biodiversity, with so many creatures depending on insects for food. So far around 25000 bee species have been found, but there are many unnamed species still waiting to be discovered. With habitat loss and the use of pesticides we are losing insects at an alarming rate. Our gardens can become sanctuaries for insects and bee biodiversity. Insects are not only beneficial for pollination but also in controlling unwanted ‘pests’ (there is no such thing as a pest). Imagine if all our gardens were insect-friendly, full of wild flowers and habitat with other flowers and vegetables growing in-between. We can all grow food in a more sustainable way that promotes biodiversity and is far more healthy for us. Weeds are simply wild flowers and are fantastic for bees, not to mention the many health benefits they have for us when used in a tea or added to our ferments and food. We should be far more tolerant of weeds, wherever they want to grow. 

Gardens can become biodiversity hotspots. Encourage your neighbours to do the same and we can easily create bee-friendly corridors of gardens, beneficial to all insects and pollinators! For bee-friendly habitat, leave your dead wood, and piles of sticks and stones, and some bare patches of soil. Minimise tidying up. Don’t use chemicals or poisons of any kind. These are all detrimental to bees and other insects, birds and other creatures, often unknowingly harming those little-seen bees living in the ground, and really all soil micro-organisms. Soil health is vital to a thriving, biodiverse garden. Put your time to much better use by watching insects in the flowers and learning to identify them. You may discover a yet unknown species! Plant a variety of herbs, like fennel, lavender, basil, comfrey, marjoram and mint, and include indigenous flowers in your garden. We can all get involved in looking after bees and all other insects, by simply inviting them into our gardens.

Conservation and Beekeeping and How Conservation Beekeeping is a Misnomer

Conservation is the act of protecting Earth’s natural resources for current and future generations.

It is the protection and preservation of nature and wildlife. In South Africa, unlike in the UK and much of the rest of Europe, we still have wild honeybees. More than 90% of South Africa’s honeybees are wild. They are healthy, thriving and free. So we have a very different situation to that in the UK, in Germany, the Netherlands, and in most of Europe. And most importantly, we have hindsight, thanks to the European and UK examples. We have seen how their indigenous species of honeybees have gone extinct, and this has surprisingly happened under the watch of their nature conservation authorities. The advent of beekeeping, bee-farming, industrial agriculture, deforestation and urbanisation, has all been detrimental to the honeybee. The impact of agriculture, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, miticides (biocidal treatments) in their landscapes and in their hives, has led to a fundamental breakdown of entire ecosystems both within the hive, and outside of the hive. A 2020 survey by the British Beekeepers Association refers to the average loss of bee colonies to beekeepers across all surveys carried out by them as being 18.2%. Eighteen-point-two percent. (In some US States this figure is far higher at an average rate of  colony loss of 40%.) Why are we humans so fooled into thinking that as a species we are superior and more intelligent than all other life forms?

We are determined to not let the same happen to South Africa’s indigenous Apis mellifera capensis colonies, nor the Apis mellifera scutellata wild honeybee species.

Wild honeybee colonies that we have been monitoring over the past 8 years here in the Western Cape in SA simply do not suffer these losses. There is no sign of varroa mite, the size of the colony intimately follows the flow of flowers/forage, the winter rains bring out many more blooms in the fynbos vegetation region, and some thriving wild colonies even have drones through the winter. The nest sizes are small, and only so much excess honey is stored to tide the colony through bad weather, drought, fire and other unforeseen circumstances. There is no glut of honey. There is an intricate balance in their resources. To think that we can take their honey (and pollen and propolis and wax) and give them nougat or sugar water in exchange, and think we are not exploiting bees, is a total disregard and ignorance on our side. Honey is the bee’s food and nourishment. It is a fermented food, full of an incredible diversity of beneficial-to-the-bees microbes and nutrients. It is what they need to thrive and to produce healthy wax which is the substrate on which the colony sustains itself.

In SA, conservation is around the protection of these incredibly intelligent wild creatures. In our natural environments, the relationship between plants and bees has evolved over millions(!) of years. It is so fine-tuned and with regard for all other pollinators and species living in these environments. In SA we do not need to ‘conserve’ bees by exploiting them. Conservation is about safeguarding a species and the environments we still have! “Conservation beekeeping” here in SA is a misnomer when you take bees out of their wild and natural habitats, hive them, and take their honey and other hive products to sell in a market economy. In the UK and European examples, we imagine “conservation beekeepers” to be those who are concerned with reestablishing wild spaces full of natural nesting and forage opportunities. And encouraging honeybees once again to live freely without human intervention, and connected to all other species in an abundance of natural biodiversity.


Book preview: Honey Mountain

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In Geoff Tribe’s debut work, the full extent of his intricate knowledge gathered over a life-time of an interest in the natural world, comes to shine. His 40 year career as an entomologist brings groundbreaking insights into a wide range of topics, beautifully captured in stories and images.

This fascinating book “Honey Mountain”, documents the history of the Cape honeybee in the Swartland from ancient times and where the earliest Dutch expeditions traded vast amounts of honey at the Heuningberg. The book traces the survival of the honeybees over the centuries despite the drastic changes in the environment occurring around about. In doing so the original vegetation, fauna and inhabitants are described and rock art depicting honeybees is interpreted. This book delves into many areas of study – archaeology, history, linguistics, anthropology, botany, culture, geography and entomology. Over 200 photos lavishly illustrate the text and contain much new material which will enthral and enlighten the reader. The chapter on the banded bee pirates captures new insights into their predations and is uniquely illustrated. Combined with other new discoveries and penetrating insights into the history and events of the various cultures make it an important addition to the library of anyone for whom these subjects are of more than a passing interest.

Currently “Honey Mountain” is in stock and available within South Africa at a special price of R400 plus shipping of R99 via Postnet to your nearest Postnet. Up to 5 books can be posted for the R99 and so any additional books more than one would be postage free. Bulk orders of 5 are worth it!

For all overseas purchases it will be R400 plus international shipping costs (available on enquiry).

A percentage of the sales price will go directly towards the conservation of wild bees.

For all orders please send an email to

“Honey Mountain” preview:

H'berg p108-111
H'berg p156-159
Bee pirates p184-185
H'berg p194-195

Dr Geoff Tribe, author of “Honey Mountain”

Jenny, Karin and Geoff on the Heuningberg (Honey Mountain)

A Coastal Corridor – Revival of the Simon’s Town Bee Garden

By Karin Sternberg

With a vision to connect the coastal areas with the mountains above Simon’s Town in the form of a corridor, in 2015 we started with the clean-up, clearing and planting of a stretch of land near Seaforth in Simon’s Town.

Over the years we have closely watched a small aggregation of metallic Halictid bees nesting in some bare soil close to a well-walked path. With the drought having had its toll on many of the plants in the vicinity of the bee burrows, and several of the popular species like succulents, proteas and leucadendrons having disappeared with time, we decided to re-plant and re-invigorate the area for a diversity of bees and to stimulate public interest in bee species of which so little is known.

The drought has had some positive spin-offs, in that the City of Cape Town has focused on propagating hardy, water-wise plants for its public spaces. We are so grateful for the City’s contribution of the following fynbos plants for the Simon’s Town Bee Garden. The species we planted are the Pelargonium betulinum, Geranium incanum, Ruschia macowanoii, Metalasia muricata, Leonotis leonurus, Salvia aurea, and Eriocephalus africanus. These are all indigenous and wonderful bee plants which will not only attract a diversity of bees, require little water, but will bring beautiful colour into the garden. 

Besides the plants, a number of possible nesting sites were created for solitary bees. Solid wood and dead-wood were brought in from the direct surroundings, much of it filled with holes left by wood-boring beetles. These tunnels are perfect for carpenter bees, including the dwarf carpenters like the Allodapula and Allodape bees, and for the other tunnel-nesting dwellers like the leafcutter bees, cellophane bees, and carder bees (and the cuckoo bees will benefit, too!). 

Sandy, bare patches of soil are perfect spots for the ground dwellers which make up the majority of the solitary bees. Such ground nesting habitat is excavated by digger bees (family Anthophoridae) and the family Halictidae which are often metallic in colour. 

Empty snail shells were also found and left; these are suitable nest sites for bees in the family Megachilidae.

By the end of planting there were already several bees investigating possible nesting sites, including the big female carpenter bee, Xylocopa caffra, and several male digger bees who were landing on the new plants, leaving their pheromones, and ever hopeful to attract the females who were quietly waiting in their burrows for warmer weather and less human activity. 

Over the coming months, we look forward to sitting quietly, bee-watching and listening to the sound of the winter rains.

A huge thanks goes out to the City of Cape Town Coastal Management – Penguin management project – with partner organisations SANCCOB and CTEET (Cape Town Environmental Education Trust) for their generous contribution to the Simon’s Town Bee garden.

Celebrating Wild Bees in Africa

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.

Wilted Leaves and Honeybees

Text by Karin Sternberg   Photographs by Jenny Cullinan

There is a fascinating connection between Pephricus, a so-called ‘leaf-wilter’, and the honeybee…

Pephricus sp.

On a recent trip to one of our research sites in the Swartland region of the Cape Province, we came upon a Pephricus species of the Coreidae family. This True Bug, either Pephricus livingstonii or P. paradoxus (both species are very similar, but can be separated on the hind margin of the dorsal plate, the so called pronotum), belongs to a group of spiny bugs that feed on plants. Very little is known about the biology of these species, and colouration and shape can vary within the species. Other species of this genera are found sucking on Ipomoea, Maerua and cacao. One observation of Pephricus sp. in a patch of renosterveld vegetation was close to some Salvia africana-caerulea (pers comm S. Hall).

Salvia lanceolata on a rocky outcrop on the Cape Peninsula. Although also somewhat spiny and haired, the S. africana is softly hairy, sometimes with toothed leaves. One can see how Pephricus camouflage would work well on this plant.

Pephricus sp. protects itself through its leaf-like camouflage, moving jerkily like a leaf in the wind. Where this camouflage does not help, Pephricus uses a scent gland to ward off ants and other enemies.

Pephricus sp. moves jerkily like a leaf in the wind. Wind is common feature in the Western Cape.

How was Pephricus connected to the Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis)? We found Pephricus on a wax comb on the ground at the base of a honeybee nest that had been poached – a rich and easy source of honey and pollen. This observation of Pephricus shows that these bugs obviously ingest pollen and nectar, as many other bugs do.

Pephricus sp. moving off wax comb

Pephricus sp.

(With many thanks to Dr Jürgen Deckert, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, for his invaluable input.)

Bombardier Beetles and the Cape Honeybee

By Karin Sternberg    Photographs by Jenny Cullinan and Karin Sternberg (all photographs and videos are protected by copyright)

bee-eating beetle

When people hear the word honeybees, they usually think of bees in boxes and as the source of honey. Little does one know, that there is far more to honeybees than hives and honey. Here in the winter rainfall area of South Africa, the majority of honeybees occur in the wild where nesting sites are selected mainly under rocks or in rock crevices with the physical environment largely determining nesting behaviour. The dominant vegetation is fynbos (heathland) and the Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) is endemic to this region. The wild honeybees use a prolific amount of propolis to insulate the nest from temperature and humidity fluctuations, which also serves as an effective fire barrier (Tribe et al. 2017). The fynbos vegetation is adapted to fire which is essential for its perpetuation and preservation. An abundance of plant resins and waxes occur within these fynbos plants, largely as chemical defences against herbivory, which offers a diverse and unique source of resins for creating propolis. The propolis wall is therefore also an integral part of the bees‘ immunity with its alchemy of organic compounds offering important antibacterial and anti-fungal properties to the colony. Not only has the Cape honeybee adapted to living in this fire-prone region, but a number of animal species have adapted to living in association with the wild Cape honeybee, such as the Ten-spotted ground beetle, Anthia (Termophilum) decemguttata.

ten-spotted beetle, note-taking

Bees are the most important pollinators of flowering plants worldwide and are ecological keystone species. By co-evolving with angiosperms, bees have contributed decisively to the present phytodiversity and the structure of the terrestrial vegetation and ecosystems (Kuhlmann 2010). The Cape fynbos region is the smallest of the six floral kingdoms in the world, but the most diverse in terms of species’ richness. The existence of a small population of the Ten-spotted ground beetle is partially dependant, too, on the wild honeybee, as observed at a wild honeybee nest in the Table Mountain National Park, Cape of Good Hope Section. Once one starts observing the honeybee in its natural habitat, there is a fascinating array of interconnections waiting to be discovered.

Wild honeybee nest ’93’ located under rock and with a recovery area out of the prevailing SE and NW winds

Wild honeybee nests attract a diverse variety of other creatures, most notably lizards.

All year round we have observed this particular ground beetle on our walks across the Cape Peninsula while tracking honeybees in flight and searching for wild colonies. But, it was only while monitoring this nest that we realised the dependence of the beetle on the honeybee as a source of food. The nest was recently discovered and is at the highest elevation at 190m above sea level of the 93 nesting sites found to date in the Cape Point Section. The nesting site has a south west entrance orientation, with a protected landing area and the colony is deeply recessed under rock with a long and narrow propolis wall, measuring 1100mm (l) by 100mm (h). The nest entrance is surrounded by Metalasia, Syncarpha vestita, Hermas villosa, Restio patens and Diastella divaricata fynbos plants.

The beetle is elongate, roughly 50mm in total length, dull black in colour, has prominent brown eyes, the head is large and flattened and the jaw juts forward to facilitate the capture of prey. It has a reddish-brown heart-shaped thorax, each side marked with a small white spot. The antennae are thin and long and equipped with keen senses of touch and smell. The legs are strong and well suited for running (Scholtz & Holm 1985). The elytra, or wing cases, are sculptured with a number of longitudinal grooves. Each elytron has five spots of white down (The Naturalist’s Library, Vol. 2). They cannot fly as their wing cases (elytra) are fused, forming a strong covering for the abdomen; the membranous wings beneath the wing cases have disappeared (Skaife 1979). The colouration, spots and intensity of the white spots can vary, as we noted when we saw several of these beetles together at this nest location. Being black, they absorb heat which enables them to become active earlier in cold conditions.

A guard bee buzzes the mating pair.

At this particular location we watched as a single beetle warmed up under a rock overhang three metres from the ridge of rocks within which the honeybee colony is located. Between the beetle and the colony were low fynbos shrubs and exposed sandy patches; a controlled burn having taken place in April 2015 in this area. Its abdomen faced into the sun, its head slightly hidden from view under rock. At approximately 10:30am the beetle started moving towards the nest under the protective canopy of fynbos and restiads. At this time we noticed a convergence of at least two other beetles of the same species moving towards the nest. Directly at the nest entrance and in the path of the exiting and returning foragers, slightly hidden from our view by the tufted reed Restio patens, two individuals started mating. Guard bees continually monitored the two beetles, sometimes flying in close and almost buzzing the beetles, at other times flying into the beetles. On one occasion the male tried to kick out at the guard bee. Otherwise the beetles did not seem to be disturbed by the presence of the guard bees. The mating process was a long affair of 45min and we captured on video a foot-tapping display by the female.

A mating pair of T. decemguttatum. The larger female is eating a honeybee during the mating act.

Video: Mating beetles with female eating a honeybee

After mating was complete, 4 – 6 beetles were spotted in the vicinity of the nest, emerging from different directions. The activity at the nest was heightened, while the sound from the bees changed and became louder. Guard bees started zig-zagging close to the ground through the undergrowth and between the plants and restiads and patrols became more prolific. The beetles started hunting, running up the sandy clearing directly under the flight path of the foragers, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes at least three were close to the nest. One of the beetles ran up the rock face, along and down, only to drop into the nest entrance from the rock overhang above. Another beetle ran up a cluster of a grass-like plant and waited for an opportunity to hunt. Several returning and emerging bees became caught in the curly restiads protruding into the nest entrance. In addition, the bees of this colony were unusually clumsy, often landing upside down or falling sideways, a phenomena only otherwise seen at one other nest. In fact, this nest is the closest in proximity to the nest we had aptly named “Clumsy Nest” after this extraordinary behavioural trait. We considered whether these nests were directly related.

These beetles are formidable hunters and fast on foot. They quickly caught and subdued any forager (female worker bee) or drone (male bee) tangled in the restiads. The guard bees immediately chased the beetle predator, probably in response to the distress pheromone discharged by the trapped bee, but the guard bees had little impact on the beetles and their hunting activities. The beetles with their mouthparts adapted for biting and chewing (Skaife 1979) were quickly able to consume the bees under cover of the fynbos. After one beetle carried away a drone in its mandibles, another beetle came towards it, but there was no tussle and the oncoming beetle merely turned away. The beetles appear not to share their prey. On several other occasions we witnessed fighting amongst the beetles with attacks from behind and two males rolling as if in a skirmish.

Video: Ten spotted ground beetle using a scissor-like action of its mandibles to eat a honeybee

It did not appear as if the beetles known locally as “Oogpister” used their chemical defence mechanism to squirt formic acid in response to feeling threatened (Scholtz & Holm 1985) by the bees. The local name is derived from the squirting of this foul and irritating liquid into the eyes or mouth of predators such as lizards, toads, birds and various mammals. The chlorine or bleach-like odour is easily perceptible if the beetle feels threatened, causing it to squirt this liquid consisting of Benzoquinine compounds. The aposomatic or warning colouration of red and black is usually a deterrent to such predators.

ten-spotted beetle and southern rock agama eating bees

The heightened bee activity between 12:30 and 13:30 attracted not only the Ten-spotted beetles, but also Black girdled lizards and Southern rock agamas. Two smaller orientation flights took place during this period amidst loud buzzing sounds from the honeybee colony. There were a number of drones present. The beetles often took cover in a protected nook slightly inside the nest recovery area and close to where many of the bees clumsily landed. Particularly the drones would land, walk up and along the back wall and then down and through the nest entrance hole in the propolis wall.

Rock agama eating honeybees with scatterings of drones

Black girdled lizard after predating on a honeybee

Since documenting this behaviour at ‘Nest 93’, we have since seen it at other nests. By additionally preying on dead bees that have been removed from a nest, these beetles play a vital role in the wider hygiene of the nesting site. When a beetle thought itself overly formidable at ‘Hope Nest’ and ran in under the ball of bees hanging from their comb, a number of guard bees quickly engulfed it and grounded it indefinitely.

Ten spotted beetle upside down in the leaf litter below the colony and grounded indefinitely

The presence of this carabid beetle species is just one example of adaptation to the largely ground-nesting behaviour of the Cape honeybee in the fynbos biome. It highlights the importance of protecting natural habitats to foster species biodiversity; a biological diversity alive with a variety of living organisms and natural processes.

Male T. decemguttatum with evaginated internal sac of the aedaegus.

It is thought that the behaviour of the male ‘blowing bubbles’ with the internal sac spreads sexual pheromones to attract females for mating.

With many thanks to Dr Manfred Uhlig, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, for his invaluable input.

The authors at work:


Kuhlmann, M. (2010). More than just honey.

Scholtz, C.H. & Holm, E. (1985). Insects of Southern Africa. Butterworths, Durban. 502 pgs.

Skaife, S.H. (1979). African Insect Life. Struik. 279 pgs.

Where Blue is a Rare Colour in Nature. Roella recurvata and its Blue Pollen.

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By Karin Sternberg

Stepping into the fynbos brings untold surprises and beauty with it. Writing this now in mid-February, a difficult time for this floral kingdom in the face of mid-summer heat, extreme winds and very little to no rain, we are once again marvelling at nature’s intelligence and the interaction between plants and pollinators.

The Roella recurvata flowers are a South Peninsula endemic known from fewer than 5 sub-populations. They are a source of abundant pollen for bees. The pollen is mostly blue! Yet blue is a rare colour in nature, so what is the significance of this colour for pollen? Why of all the colours is it blue? Perhaps it has some ultra-violet colouration that we cannot see, but that might be a brilliant colour for the bees with their ultra-violet vision?

Presently there is very little forage for bees. January/February is always the most challenging time for bees to find forage in the winter rainfall regions and the colonies dwindle to a minimum. But the wild nest we are monitoring close to this sub-population of flowers is doing very well and they are busy, carrying in their heavy loads of pollen packed tightly into their pollen baskets. This means that they are able to stock up on their pollen stores, but also that they have brood (babies) to feed! Drones are also present, where they are absent at all the other nests being monitored. In fact, at most other nests there is very little activity and very little pollen going in. Most of the wild honeybee nests are literally just ticking over, trying desperately to survive this period of dearth.

One possible reason for this flower bearing blue pollen may lie in careful observation of the photo with the pollen-foraging bees entering the depths of the nest. The blue pollen almost has a fluorescence or luminescence like quality to it. We found the following paragraph in Science Magazine (08 Aug 1975: Vol. 189, Issue 4201, pp. 476-478):

‘Nectar, which fluoresces in the visible and absorbs in the ultraviolet spectrum when irradiated by ultraviolet light, occurs in many bee-pollinated plants. It is suggested that these characteristics function as direct visual cues by which bees can evaluate the quantities of nectar available. Thus, they assume an important role in pollination of the flowers and foraging efficiency of bees.’

These flowers with blue pollen, extraordinary as they are, possibly also have the capability to attract bees to it through a fluorescence, indicating their abundance of pollen, which possibly also has a high nutrient/protein content which is invaluable to the bees especially at this time of year.

So many questions arise when looking at nature and when trying to understand nature’s intelligence. One realises just how important the ecology and biodiversity is for the survival of both plant and pollinator. In this example, one cannot separate the flower from the bee. It has possibly evolved over time to develop this extraordinary visual cue not to be missed when pollinators are least expecting it.

A solitary bee on Roella recurvata

(All photos are copyrighted and are thus the property of the authors. If you wish to use any, please contact us at

The author at work amongst the Roella flowers:

Karin Sternberg

Do drones accompany absconding and migrating swarms?

By Geoff Tribe, Jenny Cullinan and Karin Sternberg

Swarming bees departing for their new nesting site

Occasionally when a swarm issues from a nest and hangs from a branch a little way off, a few drones may be seen hovering around the swarm, possibly attracted to the pheromone secreted by the queen.  Drones are however not known to accompany a reproductive, absconding or migrating swarm, although drones have been recorded departing from clustered swarms around a tethered queen (Burgett, 1974). Yet this appears to have happened in a swarm which had arrived unseen in a natural nest under a rock no more than 30 days previously where multiple drones were immediately present – which would mean that drone comb would have had to have been constructed simultaneously with that of worker comb and brood rearing immediately begun.

But the duration of the life stage of a drone is 28 days and it is only sexually mature after 36 days on which it takes its first mating flight. Drones do not take part in any of the functions within a nest; their sole function is to mate with a queen, which happens in the air in drone congregation areas (DCA) a considerable distance from the nest. A virgin queen will mate with up to 40 drones and some sperm from each drone will be stored in her spermatheca. Thus over a period of time the nest will contain workers of various patrilines (paternal lines). Inbreeding, the mating of a queen with a related drone, is detrimental to a colony and DCAs containing hundreds or thousands of drones ensure that the chance of mating with a related drone is extremely remote.

Honeybee drones attracted to a strip of cloth attached to fishing gut and a helium filled balloon which had been lowered to near ground level within a drone congregation area in Pretoria.

How the drones find these DCAs is not fully known, but wind direction, landmarks and pheromones all appear to play a role. Both queens and drones find these DCAs independently and so respond to the same cues. Drones leave the nest independently on optimal days for flight, although at peak flying times the rush of drones to the exit and away may appear like a stampede. Flight usually begins at 12h00 and ends at 16h00 in which an average of three flights of varying duration by a single drone may take place. As the period for flight nears, drones appear to become ‘restless’ and begin combing their eyes with their forelegs, especially at the nest entrance just before take-off. In between flights the drones rush to open honey cells to replenish their energy – which takes 3 minutes on average.

Drone comb is built in an established colony when there is a surplus of pollen, and is built after that of the requirements in worker brood has been met. The drones tend to congregate in a remote part of the nest away from the brood nest when inactive and take no part in any of the functions within the nest. They never appear to follow the foraging or swarming dances of the workers or are located in the area where the dances take place. The interaction of workers with drones is limited largely to allowing them access to uncapped honey and of expelling them from the hive during times of dearth, mainly due to a shortage of pollen. The drones are either forcefully expelled from the nest by workers or are denied entrance to the nest on return from mating flights.

Swarms that issue from a nest may be reproductive or absconding (migrating) swarms, the latter induced by disturbance (predation, manipulation) or due to a dearth of resources (Winston et al. 1979). Congestion in the nest of a rapidly expanding population of bees results in the issuing of reproductive swarms where the old queen departs with young bees (Hogg 2006). 

During 2016 a wild honeybee colony that had constructed its nest under a boulder and enclosed the opening with a propolis wall absconded. This nest site remained empty for several months and was inspected at irregular intervals. On 28/6/2016 the nest was again inspected and found to be empty. The propolis wall was analyzed and removed as part of a research project, but on 29/7/2016 it was found to be inhabited by a new swarm which had immediately begun rebuilding any damaged comb. The most amazing discovery was that many drones were departing on mating flights and could only have accompanied the swarm on its migration because drone brood needs 28 days to develop from egg to adult and is only sexually mature after 36 days and is only produced after sufficient worker brood is present in the colony. It is unlikely that the drone presence could be the result of drift because of the numbers involved, the lack of honey stores and the nearest colony being located a considerable distance away.

Drones seen on the edge of the colony departing from the recently re-occupied nest

A swarm about to abscond sends out flight experienced bees which locate suitable nesting sites. On return to the nest they dance to indicate the direction and distance to the proposed nesting site. There may be dozens of dancers indicating a dozen or more sites, but over time only one dance will predominate (Seeley & Buhrman 1999). This means that all the scout bees have visited all the potential sites prior to the swarm issuing and have agreed by consensus on which site is the most suitable. Dancing scouts can be recognised in having no pollen on their legs and they do not stop at intervals to offer nectar to those following the dance.

Small swarm of Apis mellifera capensis hanging from a strand of barbed-wire during the flowering of canola near Caledon during which many swarms trek.

At the beginning of absconding, thousands of bees pour out of the nest and mill about in a swirling mass which begins after a period of time to coalesce into a swarm which alights on a branch or another such structure where they remain for several hours or even a day or two before they finally depart for the selected nesting site. Yet, the dance indicating their destination continues on the outside of the swarm of hanging bees, using the mass of bees as the substrate. Sometimes a few drones are seen with such swarms but, being so close to the original nest, they are usually regarded as having wandered on return to the nest by being attracted to the queen pheromone. Somehow the swarm manages to keep together despite individual bees flying in circles around the queen as they move rapidly through the air in a straight line while at the same time orienting towards a predetermined destination.

Drones however never appear to follow dances and therefore cannot be expected to understand them. Yet a large number presumably arrived at this new site and successfully migrated with the swarm. This could have been accomplished by one of three ways or a combination of all three – pheromones, sound (vibration) and sight.

A drone

A swirling swarm of bees on the move creates a distinct sound which is easily audible as it passes by; it can be followed by eye and although it moves at a pace, it could be followed by a runner if over level terrain; and both the queen and workers are releasing their pheromones as they fly to keep the bees together in the swarm. It has been established that in the case of reproductive swarms at least that there is a continual flight of worker bees between the old hive and the new site while swarming is in progress which steer them to the new site which may be several kilometres away (Wenner 1992; Seeley & Buhrman 1999). Hundreds of scout bees thus generate an aerial pathway by establishing an odour trail of Nasonov pheromone as they fly back and forth through the moving swarm (Wenner 1992; Schmidt et al. 1993). As explained by Lindauer (1955): While the swarm cloud is proceeding gradually along one sees a few hundred bees shooting ahead through the crowd in the direction towards the nesting place, then flying back at the margin of the swarm cloud, again pushing forward rapidly, and so on, until the goal is reached. Bees already at the site release Nasonov pheromone which serves to further attract the swarm and serves as a ‘settling’ or ‘orienting’ pheromone (Schmidt et al. 1993; Schmidt 1994; Wenner 1992). Because of the pivotal role played by pheromones, migrating swarms invariably issue only when weather conditions are favourable, especially the absence of strong winds.

What is also amazing is that swarming bees would tolerate so many drones which cannot forage for themselves and so have to rely on the workers to feed them. On arrival at the nest site, initial comb building relies on the honey stored in the honey-stomachs of the migrating workers which is of crucial importance for establishing a new colony. Perhaps drones are only able to accompany swarms in times of plenty of forage – drones regarded here as of value to the species even though they will not mate with a related queen from their own colony i.e. the workers tolerate/rear their drones for the benefit of another colony. 

Drones cannot live on their own and rely on the workers to provide them with sustenance and to heat the nest. An absconding swarm will therefore have severe repercussions for any drones in the nest unless they could depart with the swarm. Bees abscond due to various causes including pests, disease and disturbance, but the main reason is usually a dearth of nectar and pollen. Ordinarily the latter would mean few if any drones in the nest. For drones to leave with the swarm would presuppose that the drones were aware of this and, despite limited interaction with workers, would have recognised the cues as the nest started its relatively lengthy preparations to swarm. This would involve a drastic decrease in brood-rearing, few if any larvae present, all sealed worker brood having emerged and no stored pollen, nectar or honey (Winston et al. 1979). Brood rearing would have ceased, the queen would have been fed less lavishly to enable her to fly, the last capped brood would be emerging, and the honey stores would be depleted. Could distinctive sounds that are produced during the last few days before the swarm issues from its present colony, ‘a buzzing like that of an army setting out on the march’ (Wenner 1992) be recognized by drones as to what it portends? In the case of reproductive after-swarms the peculiar humming noise (Esch 1967) within the hive could also be augmented by the piping of queens. So the signs would be there but are drones able to recognise them?

When travelling with the swarm, do drones remain on the periphery or immerse themselves within the body of the swarm? Drones are strong flyers and able to fly as fast as or even faster than worker bees. The workers are aware of where they are going because they reach consensus before they depart to the new site they have selected, but the queen who had not taken part in following these dances would be as much a ‘passenger’ in the swarm as would be the drones. The queen would at all times be surrounded by, yet following the workers, as a safety precaution against predators. By releasing 9HDA pheromone, the queen would contribute to the clustering behaviour of the bees in the swarm (Winston et al. 1982). Thus both queen and worker pheromones would be integrated into facilitating the flight of the swarm, and possibly, together with sight and sound, enable the drones to attach themselves to the swarm.

Small hive beetle

A similar perplexing observation involving small hive beetles (Aethina tumida) by Dr Lundy in Pretoria where he witnesses a flailing ball travel through the air as if in a swarm directly to one of his garden hives where the beetles ‘melted’ inside (Tribe, 2000). Hours later the bees absconded due to the overwhelming numbers of beetles. How this ‘swarm’ of beetles emerged from one hive possibly a considerable distance away and were able to move en masse in a co-ordinated manner and to invade another hive is unknown.


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