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.
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.
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.
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.
By Karin Sternberg Photographs by Jenny Cullinan and Karin Sternberg (all photographs and videos are protected by copyright)
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.
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.
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:
Karin Sternberg and a lizard
Jenny Cullinan in front of a wild honeybee nest
This tailless lizard curious about us humans!
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.