Honey, We Have a Problem

By Malu Lambert
Photographs courtesy of beekind.co.za
Head to our blog for a full list of bee-attracting flowers and herbs to plant in your garden as well as some unusual home remedies for bee stings.

Sidebar: What We Have Learned About Bees
Greg Aberdeen spills some secrets about the mysterious lives of bees.
1. The sting has some benefits. A toxin in bee venom called melittin may help prevent HIV. Studies have shown the toxin can poke holes into the virus’s protective envelope. Bee stings may also ease pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. 
2. They work harder than you. During chillier seasons, worker bees can live for nine months. But in the summer, when they are at their busiest, they rarely last longer than six weeks—they literally work themselves to death. 
3. When they change jobs, they change their brain chemistry. Bees are hardwired to do certain jobs. Scout bees search for new sources of food and are wired for adventure. Soldier bees work as security guards their whole life. One per cent of all middle-aged bees become undertakers—a genetic brain pattern compels them to remove dead bees from the hive. But most amazingly, regular honey bees—which perform multiple jobs in their lifetime—will change their brain chemistry before taking up a new gig.
4. Their brains defy time. When ageing bees do jobs usually reserved for younger members, their brain stops ageing. In fact, their brain ages in reverse.
5. They’re changing modern medicine. To reinforce their hives, bees use a resin from poplar and evergreen trees called propolis. It’s basically beehive glue. Although bees use it as caulk, humans use it to fight off bacteria, viruses and fungi. Research shows propolis taken from a beehive may relieve cold sores, canker sores, herpes, sore throat, cavities, and even eczema.


The ancestors are angry. In Xhosa culture a visit from a swarm of bees signals the tribe’s forefathers are upset. Only brewing umqombothi (a sorghum beer) or slaughtering a goat will appease them. Well, that and offering words of respect to the bees as they’re asked to leave the dwelling.

Currently, though, it’s not quite a swarm that’s troubling, it’s rather the opposite. The Western Cape’s Cape honey bee population is in rapid decline due to an outbreak of American foulbrood disease (AFB)—an infection that has decimated more than 40 per cent of the local population this year alone.

Mike Allsopp of the Agricultural Research Council says, “Although honey bee colonies are not regarded by many as livestock, the role they play in agriculture and ecology is more important than that of any domesticated animal.

“They are an indispensable link in the ecological chain and are directly responsible, through pollination, for the survival of many plants. Some of these plants are crops that are essential food for the nation and also huge earners of foreign exchange.”

Food security and financial security are all wrapped up in the fate of these tiny black and yellow insects. In response, organisations have sprung up in defence of our native bee colonies. One such company is Bee Kind, headed by Greg Aberdeen. It’s a group of Western Cape beekeepers dedicated to re-establishing hives in agriculture-free zones as well as supplying beekeepers with healthy colonies.

“Bee Kind was started on the back of the crisis that broke out among commercial beekeepers,” says Greg. Before initiating Bee Kind, Greg was already making composite beehives. He came up with the idea for BeePak, the world’s first flat pack and insulated beehive system.

Greg: “BeePak eliminates all of the issues that come from wood and heat. And, with less pathogens playing a role in the health of the colony, we now see much stronger and healthier bees.” Traditional wooden hives can be at risk from termites, wax moth grubs and woodworms. Another potential hazard is the nosema parasite, commonly caused by lack of ventilation.

The problem Greg paints of the declining Cape honey bee population is a dire one. “American foulbrood has hit us badly. We have some 65 000 beehives in the Cape alone and 30 000 have been compromised. Once compromised, the colony starts to die off and stronger colonies will rob these hives of their produce and in so doing, pick up the disease. The only known solution is to burn the infected colony.

“We’re also sitting with the fear that if this problem is not brought under control, it may spread to the rest of South Africa.”

And while there is an antibiotic for AFB called OTC, it’s currently banned in South Africa. “OTC is no exit strategy, however. Resistance can build up against it. We don’t have enough knowledge when it comes to dealing with AFB. What amazes me is that no experts are being flown in by the Department of Agriculture to show beekeepers how to save our primary pollinators,” says Greg.

Though it’s not advisable to keep bees in your suburban garden—bee colonies can often become spontaneously aggressive—there are some ways ordinary South Africans can help. Start by planting flowers and plants that attract nectar-loving bees. The rule of thumb is anything that is flowering, has colour and a scent will attract these important pollinators.

Bees also get thirsty. Place shallow dishes of water around your garden for them to stop for a drink. Or fill a birdbath with stones so that the water is not too deep, which sometimes cause bees to drown.

Another way is to contribute to Bee Kind’s mission. “We’re setting up hives and trapping healthy local bees. The sites are all fynbos areas, so we’re making raw pesticide-free honey,” says Greg.

To fund the project, each frame within the hive (22 in total) is for sale to the public. The bees produce 2,5kg of honey per frame, which is then shipped off to the sponsor, at R200 per frame.

Farmers can purchase the Best Beehive System to make their own honey, while at the same time encouraging growth in bee numbers. It includes training—so don’t worry about not having experience with beehives. (www.bestbeehives.com)

The people in Oslo, Norway, are also trying to lend their bees a hand. They are recruiting the help of their citizens in an inventive way. The city is currently creating a ‘bee highway’, which aims to give the insects a safe passage with stations providing sanctuary and food. Residents have responded enthusiastically to the project by planting nectar-bearing flowers in gardens and on rooftops along the official route.

By working together we can tap into the right kind of hive mentality to save the Cape honey bee.

To buy your frame of honey go to the Bee Kind Project at www.beekind.com, and for more on the BeePak beehives go to www.bee-pak.com

Sidebar: Drinking Honey
There are a couple of fermented honey drinks unique to Africa. Karrie is a Khoisan creation. In theory, it’s similar to mead though not at all as dark in colour, or as sickly sweet. Legend prevails it’s named after the karrie tree it fermented in: rain would collect in a beehive in the tree, and the resultant mixture of honey and water would drip down into a hollow and ferment. The Khoisan would then scoop it out with a calabash to drink, harnessing its energy-giving properties.
Winemaker Hagen Viljoen at Solms-Delta is making a modern interpretation of the beverage from local honey. And also in Franschhoek, Rob Armstrong of Haut Espoir is using honey from hives on his farm to make beer at his craft brewery, Ndlovu.
A slightly more sinister—and supposedly traditional—variant of Karrie is being made up-country in Kareedouw at the unassuming Ferrari’s Pub & Grub. Here the proprietor makes ‘Heuning Karrie’ not just with water and honey, but also with two special ingredients—bee embryos and a special root that causes a numbing effect on a person’s mouth and face when drinking it, which is a desired reaction of the beverage’s ancient inventors—though too much could apparently leave you paralysed.