Cape Point’s buzzing research

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Table Mountain National Park is well known for lighthouses, spectacular views, sheer cliffs and wind. It is also an important base for wild honeybee research. Karin Sternberg from Ujubee shares some of their Cape honeybee findings…

Cape Point, a great place for wild honeybees! Photo: Jenny Cullinan.

Fact file

• 93: The amount of wild nesting sites found at Cape Point to date.

More than 85: The percentage of fynbos pollinated by the Cape honeybee.

Cape Floral Kingdom: The smallest plant kingdom on earth, but the richest in plant species.

Erica: The largest of the fynbos plant families, with some species flowering all year round.

Very little research has been carried out on indigenous bees in the wild, with many entomologists believing that Cape Point in particular, with its windy challenges and supposed lack of natural nesting sites, would have few colonies. Now into their sixth year of mostly self-funded research, the team at Ujubee has had incredible interactions with honeybees at the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park.

Karin photographs a wild colony in Cape Point. Photo: Jenny Cullinan

The Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) is unique. Laying workers can lay fertilised eggs without being mated, essentially producing pseudo clones. The colony is also able to re-queen itself should it lose its queen. This would presuppose the regular loss of queens on mating flights – and such losses have been regularly recorded in high winds. Cape honeybee colonies vary considerably in their ‘capensisness’, which is measured by the number of ovarioles of laying workers. Those with the highest number of ovarioles are located in areas of the highest average wind speeds and sudden changes in weather. This core capensis area correlates with that of the greatest speciation of erica plants.

At Ujubee, curiosity and our love for bees found us questioning how bees live when humans do nothing to them – when we are not boxing them in unnaturally large hives, and where bees are not inclined to use an abundance of propolis; when we are not removing drone comb or clipping the queen’s wings; when we are not medicating them, taking their honey, feeding them sugar water and pollen patties, or exploiting them for pollination services, transporting them over vast distances, and exposing them to pesticides and monoculture. These stresses frequently lead to disease and colony collapse. Until we study bees in the wild, we cannot know what we are undoing by hiving and managing them.

A wild colony constructs a propolis wall. Photo: Jenny Cullinan.

From a distance, fynbos vegetation may look barren, but up close it is a mosaic of flowery jewels. Within this floral diversity we could not ignore the tiny, indigenous sub-social and solitary bees, many of which are specialist pollinators. We are currently looking for the elusive oil-collecting bees of the genus Rediviva (Melittidae), which pollinate some of the ground orchids prolific in corners of the reserve, particularly after a fire.

Our minds are reeling at the adaptation of the bees to this environment. We are amazed by how the honeybees choose their nesting sites and by their prolific use of propolis to survive fire, a natural feature of the fynbos vegetation. We have also been impressed by how they choose resins from particular plants, rich in essential oils, for self-medication in the nest, and how so many other creatures – birds, lizards, bees, beetles – have adapted to the largely ground-nesting behaviour of the Cape honeybee in the fynbos biome.

The Ujubee team, Jenny Cullinan and
Karin Sternberg in the field. Photo: Fiona Anderson.

Our research highlights the importance of protecting wild honeybees in their natural habitats to foster species biodiversity, a biological diversity alive with a variety of living organisms and natural processes. This is particularly important in light of the Western Cape government’s push to bring artificial beehives into nature reserves and to introduce a programme of bee breeding. These are nature reserves where nature does its thing far better than any human.

We hope through our research to better understand bees in the wild and share our findings so as to inspire an awareness and admiration for bees, with mindfulness at its core.

Written by Karin Sternberg

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