Tag Archives: wild bees

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.

Swarming Bees and Pseudoscorpions

By Karin Sternberg and Jenny Cullinan

The chelifer found in South Africa is mostly Ellingsenius fulleri and is believed to be a predator of small mites, wax moth larvae and other arthropods found in the nest debris. They often cling onto the legs of bees and are believed to be spread in this way to other colonies (Geoff Tribe).

When bees swarm, thousands of bees pour out of a nest only to collect a short distance away in a cluster, often on a branch, but otherwise on any other structure. In September 2017 we were watching bees on the move, temporarily clustered under a concrete table, with scout bees heading out to look for possible new nesting sites and, on their return, performing dances on the surface of the cluster (on other bees) as to the location of the nesting sites found. We watched and waited over a couple of days as slowly the number of possibilities and therefore dances diminished, as the colony came closer to a consensus as to the location of their new nesting site. On the third day of watching this intriguing behaviour and to our utter amazement, we noticed that we were not alone in our waiting.

Pseudoscorpions emerging

From the edge of the first layer of bees in direct contact with the table, we spotted a number of pseudoscorpions emerging. They appeared to be restless and hungry as they moved out and away from the hanging colony, using their pincers which had fine and relatively long hairs to sensitively feel for food in the cracks and gaps of the table undersurface.

They did not get very far as certain (dedicated?) bees seemed concerned and actively encouraged them back. There was a very clear communication between these two species and they were continually touching each other; the pseudoscorpions using their pincers either in a waving motion or by clasping at the bee, and the bees using their antennae and legs to touch and usher the pseudoscorpions back into the cluster.

From all of the fussing, one could tell that the pseudoscorpions were crucial to the bees. With colony activity and communication between the bees increasing as the colony prepared to leave for their final nesting site, the bees kept a close eye on their fellow-travellers. As more and more surface bees stopped dancing and started almost buzz-running and whirling like dervishes on the surface before pushing their way into the middle of the colony as paths clearly opened up for them, the vibrations and sounds of the bees increased and activity peaked. No doubt this was also a cue completely understood by the pseudoscorpions. For when the colony finally departed for their new nesting site, remarkably not a single pseudoscorpion was left behind. 

Holes opening in the cluster

 

These observations showed us an extraordinary interdependence between bees and pseudoscorpions, and highlighted how vital each are to the other that these wild bees on the move should take the pseudoscorpions along with them. The pseudoscorpions are absolutely necessary to the health and well-being of a colony and are very much part of the bees’ hygiene. We would be very interested to hear if this has ever been documented before?

A pseudoscorpion attaching itself to the leg of a bee

Swarming bees departing for their new nesting site

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

The authors at work: