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15 October 2021
Who is the bee’s knees? - Pondering what makes bees bee-autiful
“The bee’s knees” is a term originally used to describe something small and insignificant, but fast forward to the 1920’s and the term took on a whole new meaning. The interpretation of the phrase in its current form explains exactly what a bee is – pure excellence!
Dr Adriaan Engelbrecht

As I sip my tea sweetened by honey, I wonder how many actually know that it took 12 honey bees their entire lifetime to produce a single teaspoon of honey.

And since we’re in the middle of spring and likely to see more of our industrious bee friends, just before you’re tempted to reach for the insecticide, let’s explore their excellence.

Bees are truly remarkable: a 60 000 strong colony of bees can collectively fly a distance equal to the moon and back every day.

In their daily activity, they passively pollinate all the crops we depend on, as bees are responsible for pollinating nearly one-third of all the food we consume. Locally, bees are estimated to contribute R7-billion rand annually to our economy, providing their services to humanity for free. 

Interestingly, people tend to believe all bees produce honey and live in eusocial colonies (highly organised colonies where individuals have different roles and responsibilities). The reality, however, could not be further from the truth. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that we have around 3 000 bee species, and only a small proportion of these species (0.3%) produce honey living in social groups. 
     Carpenter Bee on Lobostemon trigonus

The rest of these species are solitary or semi-social. Many have very complicated lifestyles that involve males and females living apart or lifestyles exclusively focused on a particular plant species. Some construct nests in hollow timber, others below the ground in self-constructed cavities in dead leaves, or in the case of the species where males and females live apart, the males might use a flower or leaf to sleep on. In this case, their entire life’s goal is to obtain a mate, so they spend very little time on anything else other than fulfilling that goal (sic). 

Recent research on bee pollination has indicated that in all likelihood, these “other” bees are predominantly responsible for all the pollination events that occur. Most plants need these pollination events to reproduce, which leads to the production of everything we need. Let me explain. Plants produce food (fruits, seeds, foliage for our salads, etc), they remove carbon from the atmosphere, maintain water tables, provide building materials, cool our environments in summer, and the list goes on. Therefore, bees and other pollinators are single-handedly responsible for most of the ecosystem resources we use in everyday life. 
     Anthophora Bee pollinating Mesembryanthemum

Sadly, the very species we rely on to maintain our ecological spaces are last on the list of considerations. For instance, we clear fields for crop production, these rolling fields of corn, wheat, canola, or whatever are very often green desserts where bee colonies have to actively be moved around to pollinate these crops. In fields like these, we rarely find solitary bees because their habitat is uprooted every year. Worse still, crops are often sprayed with insecticides which invariably poison bees, leading to colony collapses. Those that make it back, however, unknowingly feed their brood with contaminated pollen and nectar, with devastating results. 

Livestock farming areas are just as damaging. Here natural flower patches are rarely intact due to selective foraging and trampling by animals. Water sources are also often contaminated by high levels of pollution or are in short supply due to reservoirs or canalisation leading to dry soil, making burrowing nearly impossible. These factors often work synchronously to create an extinction vortex where the more we engage in agricultural activities, the more pollinators are lost, thereby leading to crop failures. In some countries in Europe, farmers have started to steal bumblebee queens from other countries due to persistent crop failures.
Fieldwork can be dusty…
Dr Engelbrecht after a day
of research in the veld

Mercifully, there have been some interventions made to prevent complete calamity. These include research into bee taxonomy (basically, studies focused on describing the bees in a particular area, because as the saying goes, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”). There have also been several works produced such as The Bee Genera and Subgenera of Sub-Saharan Africa, which is squarely focused on providing interventions to bee loss. However, these intervention manuals are very often produced at great cost and never really implemented, which raises the question of what can we do?

As a start, why not plant flower plants such as Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) in your garden. They flower pretty much throughout the year, need very little attention, and more importantly, provide food for bees over those periods when they tend to go hungry. Lastly, teach a child who the bee’s knees are. Changing their attitudes will leave a legacy of conservation which is something our country desperately needs right now. 

Dr Adriaan Engelbrecht is a senior lecturer in the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape.