Sunday Times

Honey­bees hav­ing a wild time

As some coun­tries strug­gle with dis­ap­pear­ing bee pop­u­la­tions, in SA the cru­cial lit­tle crea­tures are still liv­ing wild and strong from Cape Point to Jo­han­nes­burg’s sub­ur­ban forests and be­yond

- By CLAIRE KEE­TON Animals · Zoology · Ecology · Wildlife · Biology · Cape Town · South Africa · Africa · Netherlands · Germany · United Kingdom · Durban · Johannesburg

Bees don’t fly in high winds or nest by rivers, bee lore says, but wild Cape hon­ey­bee colonies in Cape Point Na­ture Re­serve have de­bunked such myths. These wild bees ex­hibit be­hav­iours never seen be­fore.

Two re­searchers who have stud­ied them for five years, Jenny Cul­li­nan and Karin Stern­berg, said: “South Africa is lucky that al­most 85% of its bees are still wild and strong.”

Af­ter re­turn­ing from the world’s first nat­u­ral bee­keep­ing con­fer­ence in the Nether­lands last month, they added: “Ger­many has al­most no wild honey­bees and there are few in the UK. In Europe they be­lieve that with­out hu­mans to look af­ter them, bees will die, but bees have sur­vived 30 mil­lion years or more.”

The wild honey­bees (Apis mel­lif­era

capen­sis) the pair ob­serve in the fyn­bos tend to set up colonies un­der hol­lowed rocks and have de­vel­oped sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ships with crea­tures such as the pseudo-scor­pion.

Watch­ing the pat­terns this week of bees in­side their “nests” — in­clud­ing feed­ing pseudo-scor­pi­ons by drop­ping wax-moth eggs next to a leaf where they lurk — was as ab­sorb­ing as a wildlife sa­fari. The bees can’t al­low the moths to pro­lif­er­ate but the moths help them clear away old comb.

To find wild bee colonies when they started their project, Ujubee, Cul­li­nan and Stern­berg would spot a bee and track it back to its nest (hives are for man­aged bees). In this way they have iden­ti­fied about 92 nests, mostly oc­cu­pied, with roughly 16,000 bees or more per colony.

Cul­li­nan is al­ler­gic to bees but has been stung only three times despite her prox­im­ity to them. She was a bee­keeper in Dur­ban, in her role pro­mot­ing ur­ban gar­dens, but is now ded­i­cated to con­serv­ing bees in the wild.

An artist who has done pop­u­lar bee sculp­tures, she said: “It took us about three months to get our eyes tuned in and then we started see­ing bees every­where.”

The pair give the nests names. At the “river nest”, bees set up home dur­ing the drought last year and have never left, even though a stream now flows be­low them.

Despite icy winds on Mon­day, worker bees flew off and came back with yel­low pollen balls on their legs. The hy­giene-bees played their “un­der­taker” role by fly­ing dead bees out of the nest. A drone buzzed off in search of an un­fer­tilised queen.

Other bees were shap­ing their propo­lis wall, made of resin and es­sen­tial oils, with tiny en­trance and exit holes. The wall also helps con­trol tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity and is be­lieved to play a role in keep­ing bees healthy.

The outer layer acts as a bar­rier in fires be­cause it doesn’t ig­nite eas­ily and with­stands much more heat than wax. Af­ter a fire last Novem­ber, the propo­lis wall in one colony was vir­tu­ally in­tact, with the em­bed­ded snail shell still vis­i­ble.

Bee poach­ers will cut out the propo­lis wall and the comb when poach­ing, steal­ing whole colonies of bees. De­mand is rock­et­ing, given bees’ key role as pol­li­na­tors for boom­ing ex­port crops such as blue­ber­ries and macadamia nuts.

Mike Miles, chair of the South African Bee In­dus­try Or­gan­i­sa­tion, said wild and man­aged bee pop­u­la­tions com­ple­mented each other. Wild bees had a huge range and ge­netic di­ver­sity. “Wild colonies feed man­aged-bee farm­ing and in spring the man­aged bees can go wild.”

He said api­arists were con­cerned about the well­be­ing of all honey­bees, wild and man­aged, given the dec­i­ma­tion of the species world­wide.

“One of the big­gest threats is poi­son­ing from pes­ti­cides from the spray­ing of crops and over­farm­ing, which de­pletes the orig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion.”

Kai Hichert, the vice-chair of South­erns Bee­keep­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, said wild bees were thriv­ing in SA. Jo­han­nes­burg’s ur­ban for­est, for ex­am­ple, had an es­ti­mated 17 wild swarms per square kilo­me­tre.

Hichert said they put catch boxes on Joburg roofs in spring to at­tract swarms that split away. “They are not tamed, and we would rather re­move swarms and man­age them than kill them. If they are not both­er­ing res­i­dents, we en­cour­age them to leave swarms and hope the num­bers are in­creas­ing. We are ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple to be more bee aware.”

In drone con­gre­ga­tion ar­eas in Cape Point, the noisy drones (male bees) are a mag­net as they stir up preda­tors like a small ae­rial sar­dine run.

Stern­berg said: “You see lizards wait­ing for bees to fall to the ground and rock kestrels fly­ing above the drones eye­ing out the lizards. You can hear the sound of the drones and feel the vi­bra­tion and it’s loud.”

The team are dis­cov­er­ing more about wild bees all the time but do not yet have an­swers to some ques­tions which arise at their seven re­search sites. “Our ap­proach is non-in­va­sive so we live with mys­tery,” said Stern­berg.

Walk­ing through the fyn­bos — 85% of the richly di­verse Cape flo­ral king­dom is pol­li­nated by in­sects, with bees be­ing the most im­por­tant of them — Stern­berg pointed out the small­est, most del­i­cate protea, the silky puff.

Hik­ing miles ev­ery day, she and Cul­li­nan wit­ness na­ture in all its glory, in­clud­ing ba­boons — which they have never seen raid­ing wild nests — and os­triches sit­ting on their nests. They once came across a mon­goose eat­ing a puff ad­der, whose eyes and fangs had vir­tu­ally been dis­sected from the head.

Cul­li­nan said their project, which is self­funded, was ded­i­cated to wild-bee ob­ser­va­tion, mon­i­tor­ing and con­ser­va­tion.

“In Europe, they have the con­cept that the way to save bees is to keep bees in a hive. We don’t need more bee­keep­ers. Lov­ing bees does not mean putting them in your back­yard. We need to pro­tect wild in­dige­nous bees in their nat­u­ral habi­tat.”

The hon­ey­bee is the most stud­ied crea­ture af­ter our­selves Jenny Cul­li­nan Ujubee co-founder

 ?? Pic­ture: Esa Alexan­der ?? Karin Stern­berg (left), with Jenny Cul­li­nan, an artist, pro­fes­sional sculp­tor and bee con­ser­va­tion­ist, at their work­place in Si­mon’s Town.
Pic­ture: Esa Alexan­der Karin Stern­berg (left), with Jenny Cul­li­nan, an artist, pro­fes­sional sculp­tor and bee con­ser­va­tion­ist, at their work­place in Si­mon’s Town.
 ??  ?? Soli­tary bees in the Western Cape, which do not live in colonies, hatch and mate as the spring flow­ers blos­som.
Soli­tary bees in the Western Cape, which do not live in colonies, hatch and mate as the spring flow­ers blos­som.
 ??  ?? The car­pen­ter bee, found through­out SA, likes to hover over a patch of flow­ers to which fe­males are at­tracted, in or­der to mate.
The car­pen­ter bee, found through­out SA, likes to hover over a patch of flow­ers to which fe­males are at­tracted, in or­der to mate.
 ??  ?? Bees shape a fire-re­sis­tant, tem­per­a­ture con­trol wall, seen to the left of the comb.
Bees shape a fire-re­sis­tant, tem­per­a­ture con­trol wall, seen to the left of the comb.
 ??  ??

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