Just like the rest of the world, many of South Africa’s most important plants and crops only continue to exist because of one animal: the honey bee. South Africa’s honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) are a subspecies of the same Western honey bee you see in your backyard. South Africa also has its own unique subspecies, the Cape honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis) that only occurs in the extreme southern coastal regions near South Africa’s capes.
Both subspecies and their hybrids help form the backbone of the South African agricultural economy, not to mention our ecology. You can learn more about the humble honey bee and its amazing abilities by reading on and then visiting some of our incredible apiaries on a South African safari tour.
The African Honey Bee
African honey bees can be found throughout most of central and southern Africa. Compared to their European cousins to the north, they are smaller and have a less “fuzzy” appearance. A typical worker is around 19 mm (.74 inches) in length.
A worker bee will have five eyes, with three small single-lens eyes and two larger compound eyes. Each compound eye will have almost 7,000 lenses, giving bees a multi-angle view of its surroundings at all times.
To look for food, hives send out thousands of workers in search of flowering plants and other sources of nectar. The bees will feed on the sweet, sugary nectar from these flowers, storing it in their abdomen to bring back to the hive. Bees will also carry back pollen to the colony, which can be used to create specific blends used to feed growing bee pupae as well as the queen. Electrostatically charged hairs attract pollen and hold it tight in “pollen baskets” found on the bees’ rear legs. Bees will scrape this pollen in order to collect it while also feeding on nectar with their long proboscis “tongues.”
While feeding and collecting pollen, bees inevitably cause the pollen to cross from the pollen-rich anther to the sticky stigma on plants, fertilizing them. Bees are especially helpful to the ecosystem when they carry pollen from plants across great distances to other plants of the same species, creating hardier crossbreeds compared to plants born from the same local genetic pool.
During the winter, hives appear to “hibernate” but they actually remain active inside. Bees live off of stored honey and maintain slow vibrations of their wings to create ambient warmth, allowing the queen and many workers to survive the cold.
Cape Honey Bees
Cape honey bees are a subspecies unique to the southernmost tip of the African continent, where winter rains are common. Unlike all other honey bees, worker Cape bees can reproduce asexually by laying female diploid eggs, whereas all other species’ workers can only lay haploid male eggs.
Many of South Africa’s most productive apiaries use Cape honey bees to produce honey and other agricultural products.
Meeting African Honey Bees on a South African Safari Tour
African bee colonies can be found in the wild all throughout areas like Kruger Park and Namaqua National Park. We also have many farms dedicated to helping bee colonies succeed, grow and multiply, like the Simply Bee Observation Centre and Hudsonville Honey.
Come meet these incredible workers — both the bees and the people! — and see why South Africans have a closer appreciation of nature when you embark on your South African safari tour.
Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa