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What Is a Bee?
This short series on gardening with bees in South Africa will explore the reasons for adding this extra dimension to gardening, and the pleasure that can be found in it. Our country’s bee diversity is astounding, and they come in many different shapes, sizes and colours, while their behaviours and floral choices also differ. Most importantly, they provide a vital service as pollinators. To enjoy bees is to get to know them and to understand what they are doing in the garden. The best known, most common and most widespread bee is the honeybee. Well known for producing honey and as a pollinator, they can sting and should only be kept where they’ll cause no harm. A hive can quickly, and without warning, turn from docile to very aggressive. Children and pets should, therefore, be kept away from hives and wild nests, and only adults skilled in handling honeybees should disturb hives. However, there are many other types of bees that are safe to have in gardens.
Not All Bees Sting
The sting is a modified ovipositor, so only female bees sting. There is also a small group of bees in South Africa, the stingless bees (also known as mocca or mopani bees), in which females do not have a sting. But even if bees can sting, the sting of most bees is not particularly painful. Nevertheless, avoid getting stung, especially if you are allergic. This is not difficult because they are not aggressive and only sting when handled. Watch them, but don’t touch them. The honeybee sting is barbed, and if a stinging bee is brushed away the sting and its poison gland remain embedded in the victim’s skin, torn from the bee, resulting in the death of the honeybee and prolonging the victim’s painful experience. Other bees, when disturbed, flee rather than attack, and their stings are not barbed. Bee gardening is therefore not dangerous, as long as honeybees’ hives are discouraged in areas where they could put people and other animals at risk.
Bees’ Special Features
Bees are vegetarian wasps, and together with the wasps and ants, they form the insect order Hymenoptera (meaning membranous wings). They also all have a narrow waist between the middle and posterior body parts. Bees differ from wasps principally in having a vegetarian diet (pollen for protein, nectar for sugar, and a few bees gather plant oils as well). Wasps, in contrast, mostly feed on other invertebrates, although some, the pollen wasps, feed on pollen and nectar. The main feeding stage of bees, as in most insects, is the immature stage, which is the growing stage. Adults do not grow larger after they emerge from the pupa. Therefore, most of the pollen and nectar that bees gather visiting flowers is for their larvae. Adults ingest only small quantities as food. All bee larvae are raised in nests – they are never free-living. Honeybees, stingless bees and some small carpenter bees are social – they have a queen that lays eggs and female workers that visit plants and feed the larvae. The other species are solitary and their larvae are mostly fed by their mothers. Therefore, female bees move back and forth, gathering pollen and nectar from flowers while provisioning their nests. Bees, therefore, purposefully visit flowers repeatedly, and focus on the same type of flower at any one time. Having confined larvae and foraging mothers are major contributors to their importance as pollinators. Females are therefore the most important pollinators. Male parents take no part in raising progeny. They are often expelled from their parental nests and then they overnight on plants, biting onto vegetation with their mandibles, sometimes in large groups.
Most bees are very hairy, unlike most wasps. Therefore, they not only collect pollen in their unique pollen baskets but all over their hairy bodies. Consequently, some plant species are pollinated by the pollen in the bees’ pollen baskets, others by pollen that clings to other parts of the bees’ bodies. All pollination happens by chance, as bees do not intentionally pollinate flowers. There are many different types of bees. In South Africa alone there are about 1 000 different species (and about 20 000 species worldwide), in 70 genera. The honeybee is only one of these species, although there are two distinct subspecies, the Cape honeybee and the common honeybee. Other bees range in size from 2mm, such as mopani bees, to 30mm long, such as large carpenter bees.
Dr C. Eardley is from the Agricultural Research Council, Plant Protection Research Institute, and has worked on the taxonomy of African bees and the conservation of their biodiversity for 40 years. His email address is email@example.com