As sweet as honey, the threatened honey bees

Gaynor Lawson in 2008 – “Over the last few years, the numbers of bees have been decreasing mainly because of man-made problems. Change in climate and agricultural practices such as misuse of pesticides is one of the reasons. Saving the bees is saving our future because without bees, food will be scarce.”

(Press release from Cape Govt. dated 29th May 2018 – Department of Agriculture to release its strategy to sustain the honey-bee population in the Western Cape. No other single animal species plays a more significant role in producing fruit and vegetables than the bee. But there has been global concern about the health of bee populations and the sustainability of the numbers of honey-bee colonies needed to support commercial pollination needs. It is estimated that the demand for pollination will double over the next decade, and the question is will there be enough bee colonies to go around? Major threats facing honey bee populations include disease, pollution and insufficient forage in urban environments. In response, the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, working with the Western Cape Bee Industry Association, has devised a strategy to address the challenges in the industry, and prevent any further drastic impact on the honey bee population of the Western Cape.)

By Gaynor Lawson, guest author. Gaynor lives in the beautiful KZN Midlands and was the publisher, editor and writer of the very popular local newspaper The Quill where this article first appeared. We were fellow members of a small but energetic Writer’s group. We met monthly to share our stories and to quaff significant quantities of fine South African wine.

Honey has delighted humans for over 40 centuries.

Ancient Egyptians paid their taxes with it, the Bible refers to it as “the heavenly food”, and ancient Greeks made honey-cakes as offerings to their gods and minted coins with bees on them. But few of us realise just how amazing the bee and its honey really are.

Bees have been producing honey for at least 150 million years, and this industrious creature has remained unchanged for 20 million years. The earliest illustration of honey being gathered is found on the walls of a rock shelter in Spain, and is estimated to date back to about 15 000 years ago. Yet despite a very long relationship with mankind, bees have never become domesticated.

Before mankind learned how to ‘keep’ bees in man-made hives, ancient man collected wild honey by driving away the bees and destroying the nest. However, early Egyptians created long cylindrical hives from twigs and hardened mud, in which they bred bees and harvested their honey. Over the centuries, man explored making hives from many different materials and in numerous shapes, using logs, baskets and pots, or hanging containers in trees, and beekeepers came to understand that it was not sensible to destroy the bee colony when harvesting honey.


The earliest recorded use of hives with movable frames was in 1682, in Greece. By the mid-seventeenth century, beekeepers were stacking together “skeps”, the old-style rounded beehive structures, so that a box of combs could be removed without killing the colony. By the first half of the 19th century, removable frames containing honeycomb were used but beekeepers had problems with bees building comb between the frames. In 1851, Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth of Pennsylvania in the USA developed the concept of “bee space”, the space needed to separate parts of the hive to make them too wide for the bees to fill with honey. The modern Langstroth hive is still used today, with combs filling up frames like rectangular window screens.

A complex community

There are three types of bee, the worker, the drone and the queen, and each has a vital role to play, and all are totally interdependent. The worker bee is always female, and takes on all tasks essential to the colony, including collecting nectar and producing honey. The drone’s sole function is to mate with the queen, whose only activity is to produce eggs for the hive, and to maintain the social order of the community by emitting glandular secretions.


The worker bee: starts out as a “house” worker, caring for the interior of the hive by cleaning cells, feeding honey and pollen to larvae, comb building, and removing nectar from “field” bees and placing it in cells. Worker bees also ventilate the hive by fanning their wings. At 18-21 days, the worker bee is entrusted with guarding the hive, as her sting glands now contain the maximum amount of venom. After 21 days, the worker bee becomes a “field” worker bee, and never returns to household duties. She now collects nectar, pollen, or water, depending on the community’s needs. Using ultraviolet vision, worker bees can see deep inside flowers to find ones full of nectar, which will be sucked out and stored in the honey-sack on her body, while pollen is collected and stored in separate pollen sacks on her back legs.

The drone: is always male and his entire body is adapted to mating with the queen, with no sting or any body features like the worker bee’s pollen sacks. Drones are reared in spring when the hive’s resources can sustain them, and, becoming sexually mature at 10-12 days, they mate with the queen, dying in the process. In autumn, drones are not allowed to feed, and when weakened, their bodies are dragged from the hive by worker bees.

The queen

The queen comes from the same egg as the worker bee, but is fed far more lavishly, resulting in numerous anatomical differences, equipping the queen to mate and store sperm for long periods. Queens live for about five years, and when her health is failing or she is dying, the hive immediately begins to enlarge an egg or day-old larvae, and constructs a special cell to house the new queen. Only when she begins to emit certain secretions, a few days after emerging, is the bee identified as the new queen. Her first days are spent feeding on pollen and nectar, and seeking out and killing other virgin queens and queen cells. At 5-6 days old she begins to mate with an average of 8 drones, and starts laying eggs 2-3 days later. This mating provides about 5-million sperm that will last the queen the rest of her life. The queen is busiest during summer, when the hive needs to be at maximum strength, and she lays about 1000-1500 eggs each day.

How honey is made

Honey is the bee’s primary food source, and bees are kept busy collecting nectar to make sufficient food stores for the colony. Field worker bees visit between 50-100 flowers during one collection flight, and on the flight back, sugars in the nectar are simplified so that they can be changed into honey. When she reaches the hive, the worker bee transfers the nectar to house worker bees in a delicate “tongue-to-tongue” ritual. The house bee then spreads a drop of nectar inside a honey-cell to begin the drying process that converts nectar into honey, and packs pollen into pollen cells.

Worker bees do not automatically know how to make honey, but are taught by more experienced bees. House bees fan their wings to evaporate moisture from the nectar, which is 80% water, and close the cells with a wax cap. Inside, the thickened nectar ages into honey.

Honey has different flavours and colours, depending on the location of the hive, climatic conditions, and the kinds of flowers the bees visit. To produce 2kg of honey, 2 million flowers must be visited, and the hive will fly 55 000 miles. Honey-making is a huge task for the hive: an average worker bee will only make about a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey during its entire lifetime. The hive needs honey to survive the winter, as worker bees only leave the hive for short cleansing flights in colder months, and the bees live on the honey collected during summer. They form a tight cluster inside the hive to keep themselves and the queen warm.

How bees communicate

Bee colonies have unique odours that members emit like identification cards at the hive entrance. Honeybees have an acute sense of smell using their antennae, and communicate by using chemical substances called “pheromones”, secreted from a gland, to evoke a response from other bees. Pheromones communicate alarm or mating signals, and mark food sources or enemies. When bees sting to protect their hive, the stinger is left in the enemy to mark them as hostile no matter where they go.

The ‘dance of the bees’ is a special dance by worker bees to tell others about food sources, using physical movements, and pauses to give their audience a taste of nectar or pollen. There are two basic dances. The round dance indicates that there is food close to the hive and others should seek it out. The ‘tail-wag’ dance gives information about the direction and distance of the food, and usually, the faster the dance, the closer the food source.

Some fascinating facts

  • Bees fly at about 12 miles an hour.
  • Bees have four wings and five eyes.
  • Bees’ wings beat at 11 400 times per minute, which creates their distinctive “buzzing”.
  • Honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life, including water. It contains vitamins and anti-oxidants, and is fat-, cholesterol-, and sodium-free.
  • Honey never goes off, and honey found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun was edible.
  • Honey was the most used medicine in ancient Egypt: of more than 900 medical remedies that we know about today, more than 500 were honey-based. Physicians in ancient Rome used honey to help soothe their patients to sleep. As recently as during World War One, honey was mixed with cod liver oil to dress wounds on the battlefield.
  • Honey attracts and absorbs moisture, making it very soothing for minor burns and helps prevent scarring. Honey is acknowledged as an anti-microbial agent, deterring certain bacteria, yeast and moulds.
  • Bees also produce a natural food and medicine called “propolis” from plant resins, to keep their hive free of bacteria, fungi and viruses. It contains at least 150 chemical compounds that work synergistically to combat disease and boost immunity in humans.
  • The true honeybee was not known in the Americas until Spanish, Dutch and English settlers introduced it at the end of the 17th century. Today, honeybees perform 80% of the pollination of the fruit, vegetables and seed crops in the USA.

A local problem

Beekeepers in southern Africa are battling the plundering of their hives by humans. These honey-thieves smash up the hives and kill the bees in their attempt to get at the honey and honeycomb, which is frequently sold on the side of the road. Wild hives are also destroyed, and because smoke is used to subdue the bees, veld and forest fires are often started at the same time.

Please don’t support roadside honey-traders: buy your sweet treat from a reputable shop, and stop people killing off our bees.

The bad news

Bees worldwide are under threat. Bee colonies are collapsing on a frightening scale. The main culprit that has emerged is a new type of insecticide which is a neurological toxin that affects information processing in the bee’s brain. After a while they can’t navigate home. Foraging bees die before they can get back to feed the babies or they pass it onto the babies and queen. In SA we are now using these toxic insecticides even though they have been banned in Germany, France and England.

Bees pollinate two-thirds of all our food. Their contribution to the SA citrus industry alone accounts for 1.6 million rand in value. When scientists noticed that silently, they were dying at a terrifying rate, swung in to action, and kept on swinging until they won. The victory was the result of two years of flooding ministers with messages, organizing media-grabbing protests with beekeepers, funding opinion polls and much, much more.

For the full article –

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Guest authors who have generously allowed us to publish their work. A sincere thank you to them.

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