Geoff Tribe was an up-and-coming entomologist, increasingly focusing on honeybee research, when he became highly allergic to bee venom.
“Even the odour from an opened hive would set off a reaction”, Geoff grimly recalls. “Welts would manifest all over my body following a sting, my throat would close, and I would battle for air.”
Despite the ever-present danger of an anaphylactic attack, honeybees were a perpetual source of fascination for Geoff during his 40-year career in entomology. Now retired and living in Cape Town, he has continued to pursue his apiarian interest with the publication of his debut book, ‘Honey Mountain’.
The Heuningberg (or ‘Honey Mountain’) is a twin-hillock situated in the Swartland, below the Groot Winterhoek mountain range near Tulbagh. Geoff’s historical research has uncovered that this was an area of significant honey trading between early European settlers and the local inhabitants, specifically a group known as the Sonquas.
Honey was much sought after by those travelling on the ships visiting the Cape. As Geoff points out in his book, “an almost standing request to the outposts was the need to procure ever more honey – even to the Dutch settlement at Rio de Lagoa (Maputo) in Mozambique”.
But ‘Honey Mountain’ is much more than an historical chronicle of this intriguing landmark and surrounding areas. Drawing on his vast experience as an entomologist, Geoff provides some fascinating insights into the honeybee colonies to be found in the area, many of which inhabit inaccessible clefts in rocks. One spot has been occupied by bees for over 350 years, according to the records!
Geoff observes that these bees are typically smaller, darker and more vicious than normal “because they have used the same combs for decades, in which the pupal cases of each succeeding generation are pressed into the side of each cell, thus making the cells progressively smaller”. Fascinatingly, Geoff concludes that if hived, the succeeding generations of these bees would return to their normal size.
His admiration for the honeybees that are the subject of his book is apparent, having withstood, as he says, “the enormous changes that have occurred around them” in the last few hundred years. It was an area once teeming with wildlife in vast grasslands; now it is intensively farmed. But according to Geoff, honeybees in the Swartland have become “highly adapted” to the region, where cold fronts roll in from the sea during winter, followed by summer temperatures of 40C.
Of particular interest to beekeepers are sections in the book where Geoff deals with some of our most enduring problems, such as the scourge of banded bee pirates. Illustrating the threat they pose with startlingly graphic data, Geoff warns that their “detrimental effect on honeybees and honey production is greatly underestimated by most beekeepers”.
While working at the Bee Research Institute in Pretoria, run by the esteemed Martin Johannsmeier, Geoff was part of a team that uncovered some of the unusual, arguably unsavoury, traits that characterise the Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis). These included the occurrence of ‘pseudo-queens’ and the ability of Cape laying workers to invade African honeybee (Apis mellifera scutellata) colonies. Geoff says this was not taken seriously by other honeybee researchers at the time.
Geoff’s entomological expertise took him to Australia to undertake another beekeeping- related mission. One of the tasks was to find a natural enemy of the Eucalyptus fruit fly (Drosophila falvohirta) which had halved honey production in the then Transvaal and Natal. Geoff said he returned to South Africa with a suitable predator of the fly, but it was never released into Eucalyptus plantations. He said current day beekeepers are unaware of the number of supers that used to be piled on hives prior to the arrival of the fly. It is now prevalent throughout the Western Cape, no doubt also seriously depleting our honey harvests.
Although highly allergic to bee stings, Geoff bravely resumed his passion for bees and beekeeping by setting up an apiary in Tokai in the Cape Peninsula. He says he just “made sure I never got stung”, which shows that resolute beekeepers never fade, they just keep on keeping bees!
‘Honey Mountain’ by Geoffrey D. Tribe is published by Pinewood Studios, Cape Town. Copies can be obtained from independent book stores.
Reviewer: Chris Nicklin