Keeper of the Bees

There are few creatures in the world more fascinating than bees. Their work ethic is second to none and honey and beeswax have a phenomenally wide range of applications. Even just watching bees leave the hive two by two – like there’s an air traffic controller directing them – speaks to there being so much about bees that we don’t yet understand.

_DSC7576_(640x427)I’ve always been interested in beekeeping. My grandfather kept hives, and watching his caring, methodical way of tending to his bees spoke of a real symbiosis. Although he was only a hobbyist beekeeper, the time and thought he put into beekeeping mirrored the industriousness of his bees as they went about pollinating his garden.

Beekeepers are all around us, yet it is a relatively unknown industry that most people assume is only about collecting honey. Mike Miles, Chairman of the South African Bee Industry Organisation (SABIO), speaks about the other aspects of the job. “Firstly, managing beehives is managing the environment. Remember, you cannot domesticate bees – they are wild animals and you learn so much from their behaviour, their moods, their work ethic and their devotion to preserving their own species. Beekeeping is not only about harvesting honey, although this is the most rewarding aspect of the pastime. Other products of the hive include beeswax, pollen, propolis and a beautiful garden pollinated by your own bees.”

Phil Walker of Green Door Apiaries in Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, and member of the KZN Bee Farmers Association, agrees: “Regrettably too many bee keepers are merely honey hunters. They do not look at all aspects of being a beekeeper, like pollination, training, educating, bee removals and so on. The industry has never been looked at in the broader sense. This is changing, however, due to the changing arena that we find ourselves in. A new generation of beekeeper is emerging, though it will take time for a greater mind change.”

One often reads all sorts of alarming things about the health of bee populations around the world, and whilst South Africa’s bees have proven to be fairly resilient, they are also threatened by environmental and economic factors. “With the growing lack of forage for bees thanks to climate change and drought conditions, we need to establish ‘forage reserves’ where bees can be placed during non-pollination seasons to build up their health and immune systems,” Mike says. “Economically, we cannot compete with the price of imported honey versus the rising costs of producing good quality honey locally. The feral population is the backbone of our bee industry but there has been a definite decline in the feral bee population, which is evidenced by the declines in the swarming bee populations over the years during the normal swarming seasons.

“However, it is a myth that if bees disappeared off the face of the earth we would all die within three years. Modern farming methods, technology and genetically modified crops would to a large extent replace the work of bees. But on the other hand bees are a natural part of the environment; they do pollinate in the most effective manner some 70 % of the world’s crops. Thankfully, it is unlikely that bees will totally disappear – our African sub-species is very resilient. But if we make it uneconomic to profitably farm with bees, we will then have to solely rely on the feral bee population, and this in itself will make it sub-economic to cultivate certain crops. This, down the line, will impact on agriculture, job security and then food security,” Mike says.

Unfortunately, bee conservation is mostly being left to hobbyists and organisations like SABIO. “No formal conservation measures are in place,” Phil says. “Although there is legislation in place regarding honey, the protection of bees is very grey.”

This all means that hobbyist beekeepers and non-beekeeping members of the public have an important role to play in bee conservation. “There is a growing interest amongst hobbyists to take up beekeeping and to have a beehive in one’s garden, especially when a feral colony takes up residence and the landowner does not want it removed or destroyed,” Mike says. However, beekeeping is also hard work. Mike continues: “Know what you are in for. You cannot just put bees in a beehive and leave them there. They need to be managed, inspected and looked after. Beekeeping is hard and hot work but very rewarding if you are a nature lover. Remember that honeybees are one of the only insects of value to man given the variety of products which come out of a beehive.”

Phil agrees: “Too many people think merely putting a box of bees out and leaving them to their own devices and then taking honey is the way to keep bees.” He also suggests that “hobbyist beekeepers should get involved with an association like ours or an experienced beekeeper that is happy to mentor them”.

But you don’t need to keep bees yourself to have a positive impact on the state of our bees. Phil offers a few ideas to start with: “Offer professional beekeepers access to properties that are big enough for keeping bees. Plant the correct forage and bee friendly plants. Get behind the bees and their plight just like the rhino and elephant. Regrettably bees are still seen as pests just to be eradicated if impacting people, whereas the big and hairy animals are far away from our backyards so their causes are taken to heart.”

“Don’t see bees as a pest or a menace; rather see bees as a natural asset which needs to be preserved,” Mike continues. “Bees don’t normally attack unless they are provoked or disturbed. If a feral colony moves into your premises, call an experienced and registered beekeeper to have them removed as soon as possible before they get too big and then become a danger.”

This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of InFlight magazine ( and is republished here courtesy of TCB Media.
Text: Will Edgcumbe Images © Andre Cilliers

Bee-Friendly Plants
Trees: Sweet thorn, karee, bush willows, weeping wattle and tree fuchsia.
Indigenous Plants: Agapanthus, aloes, asparagus ferns, Cape violets, clivias, Euryops daisies, Carpet geraniums, ribbon bushes, butterfly bushes, Cape honeysuckle, vygies.
Non-indigenous plants: Calendulas, forget-me-nots, hollyhocks, Michaelmas daisies, lavender, poppies, primulas, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias.
Herbs: Chives, fennel, mint, marjoram, oregano, rosemary and thyme
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