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
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