All About Bees
Honeybees add so much more to our lives than honey…
We love bees. We love the sound they make in a gum tree on a hot summer’s day. We love their furry little bodies that get full of pollen, the way they will die for their hive, the way they communicate via dance and the endless statistics that make these insects so incredible and fascinating.
When most of us think of bees, we think ‘black and yellow’. We think of honey, of Maya the bee and Winnie the Pooh. But did you know that there are thousands upon thousands of species of bees in the world, and about 1400 species in South Africa alone?
There are six bee families in South Africa:
Honeybees (Apidae): These are the bees we picture, the ones that make honey. There are two species in South Africa — the Cape honeybee and the African honeybee. They live in large social hives with a single queen and up to 60 000 worker bees, as well as a few fairly useless male drones. These are the only bees that make a significant amount of honey – most bees actually make no honey at all.
Sweat bees (Halictidae): Despite their unappealing name, sweat bees are beautiful and can be solitary, semi-social or social. They come in a range of sizes and iridescent colours including black, blue, green and red. Some of these bees actually make honey but in small quantities and so are not commercially interesting.
Mason and Leafcutter bees (Megachilidae): The common names of these bees reflect the two materials different species use to make their nests: mud and leaves. They are incredible pollinators.
Carpenter bees (Anthophoridae): These little fellers bore holes in wood and lay their eggs in them. The bees we normally call bumblebees belong to this family (there are no bumblebees in South Africa).
Oil-collecting bees: (Melittidae): Now this is interesting – these bees collect floral oil to feed their larvae instead of pollen!
Membrane bees (Colletidae): The nests of these bees are lined with a secretion from their mouths which dries into a cellophane-like membrane.
Fun Fact: Over 20,000 different species of bee are spread around the world, found on every continent except Antarctica.
While all these bee species’ play an indispensable role in their ecosystems by pollinating their food sources, we will take a closer look at what honeybees do for us and what we can do for them.
All bees are immensely important pollinators. They do this by flying from flower to flower as they go about their business of collecting nectar and pollen. Bees’ bodies are hairy allowing pollen to stick to them when they visit a flower. It is estimated that a single bee can visit (and therefore pollinate) up to 100 flowers in one flight and 1000 in just one day!
Approximately 90% of wildflowers are pollinated by bees and it is said that a third of the world’s food supply is pollinated by bees. This is a great reason to have bee-attractive plants in and around your food garden.
Who doesn’t love honey? It lasts forever (literally – it never goes off; honey found in an Egyptian tomb was edible, despite being a few thousand years old), it’s delicious, healthy and gives you energy.
Honey is also the only edible product produced by insects. Honey is made by bees from nectar and is a key food for them. In a well-managed commercial hive, the beekeeper only harvests the surplus honey, leaving enough for the hive to survive. Remember – bees never take a day off, so they’ll carry on making honey even if they already have more than they can use.
When buying honey, look on the back of the bottle: if it is irradiated, it’s little better in terms of health than syrup. What you want is raw honey, preferably as local as possible to where you live. Local honey contains pollen and so helps with local pollen allergies. Honey also contains all sorts of micronutrients, is anti-fungal and antibacterial.
Don’t waste honey – it can take 12 bees their entire lifespan to make a teaspoon of honey, and for a hive to make one jar of honey, 2 million flowers will have been visited and almost 90 000km flown.
Flakes of beeswax are produced by bees from glands on their abdomens, and then chewed and used to make the honeycomb they raise their babies and store honey in. It takes bees about 6 times as much energy to make wax as it does to make honey, and there are about 1100 tiny little wax flakes in one gram of wax.
Wax can be used by us to make furniture or shoe polish as well as candles and soaps. Because of its moisturising and medicinal qualities, it is often used in creams and lotions for our skin as well as treatment for burns and fungal infections. Ingesting beeswax can have a host of health benefits too, for everything from treating mouth ulcers to lowering cholesterol.
Honeybees have little pollen baskets on their back legs that they pack full of pollen when they’re burrowing into a flower. You can often see these yellow, orange or even white bundles if you look closely at foraging bees. The pollen is then stored in cells in the honeycomb and used as food for adult and baby bees alike.
The real benefit of pollen for us humans is the pollination that occurs when bees are collecting it, but bee-collected pollen is also a powerful medicinal supplement for us. It does everything from reducing inflammation to functioning as an antioxidant, reducing stress and speeding up healing. It can, however, have side effects stemming from allergies.
The real question around bee-pollen is an ethical one: bees need the pollen they collect to raise their young and to stay healthy. Is it right to steal this pollen? Beekeepers who harvest pollen do it with pollen ‘traps’ that scrape it off the bees as they return to their hives. As long as the beekeepers regularly remove the traps to give the bees a break, there is little difference in the ethics of bee pollen and honey.
Here’s the real bee-made superfood! Propolis is the gummy substance that bees make to seal holes in their hive. Also, if a big (compared to a bee) animal, like a lizard, dies in their hive, bees will entomb the body in propolis to prevent it from infecting their hive.
Propolis is made from the resin of various plants and is dark and sticky with a pleasant, unique scent. It is easy to collect from a beehive by scraping it off the wood. While it can be eaten as is, it is usually dissolved in alcohol to make a tincture, a few drops of which is then added to water and then drunk. Propolis has numerous medicinal applications as it has antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antimycotic, antifungal, antiulcer, anticancer and immunomodulatory properties. It really is quite a phenomenal substance.
Royal jelly is a white, jelly-like substance secreted by bees from a gland on their heads and fed to young bees. It is also fed to the queen (in fact, it’s all she eats) and is so powerful that it is solely responsible for turning an ordinary bee larva into a queen bee, and also the reason why a queen bee lives for years as opposed to the months of a worker bee. It is another incredible substance that bees produce and has a host of benefits attributed to it.
Collecting royal jelly, however, is not ethical and a number of baby bees die in the commercial harvesting of it. Personally, we don’t believe that products containing royal jelly can be responsibly or ethically produced or bought.
Bees in your garden
Not everyone wants a beehive in their garden, and we don’t all have to. We can do our bit by planting a diverse garden that has lots of different plants in flower. Plants that bees love include borage, lavender, sunflowers, salvias, sage, thyme, many bulbs, marigolds, penstemons, asters, anthericums, clover, aloes, arums, alliums, buddlejas, zinnias, echinaceas, cosmos, hellebores, foxgloves, most fruit trees and many more. Also try to have something indigenous flowering in your garden throughout the calendar. Grasses can also attract bees, who love their pollen.
Try to make sure there is a constant shallow source of clean, fresh water available to bees. Pop a few stones in a bowl with their tops peaking out the water, to give the bees somewhere to land on and drink from.
Solitary bees also need a place to live, such as wooden bee hotels, bare patches of ground, patches of wild, unkempt garden and piles of logs.
Try to use no pesticides in your garden, because the vast majority of them will kill bees as efficiently as they kill pests. Even if they don’t kill adult bees, systemic pesticides end up in a plant’s nectar and pollen, poisoning future generations of pollinators.