WCBA & Industry News

Celebrating the marvels of the cape honeybee

World Bee Day is sanctioned by the United Nations. Its purpose is to acknowledge the role of bees and other pollinators in the global ecosystem.

Top South African honeybee scientist, Mike Allsopp, has hailed the wonders of the Cape honeybee, including its resistance to the most vicious pest that has devastated beekeeping in many parts of the world.

With World Bee Day on the 22 May,  Allsopp, the lead honeybee researcher at the Agriculture Research Council, the ARC, has told beekeepers who work with Cape honeybees to remember that it was “a very special honeybee”.  He jokingly compared them to Kim Kardashian in the “world celebrity stakes”.

The Cape honeybee, Apis mellifera capensis, is one of the two indigenous honeybees occurring in South Africa.  The other is the so-called African honeybee, Apis mellifera scutellata.

Honeybee scientists have long been intrigued by the unique ability of the infertile female workers in Cape honeybee colonies to lay fertile eggs.  They’re able to literally clone themselves, which typically happens if the queen dies prematurely, thereby saving the colony from an almost certain end.  This extremely rare phenomenon is known in the scientific world as Thelytokous parthenogenisis and is reported in about 1 of 1000 described animal species.

More recently, scientists have been investigating why the Cape honeybee has been so resilient in the face of attacks by the highly destructive Varroa mite.  Allsopp recalls the appearance of Varroa in South Africa in 1995, saying there was “panic like never before”. The Varroa mites gorge on a honeybee organ called the “fat body”, wiping out whole colonies.  Beekeepers elsewhere in the world are forced to treat their hives with pesticides to control Varroa, but the mite continues to cause mayhem.

In trying to understand why the Cape honeybee has managed to fight off Varroa, Allsopp says scientists have observed further rare behaviour.   The nurse bees routinely remove the wax cappings of the cells in which the larvae, or baby bees, develop. This is a massive chore, as each side of the comb can have up to 9000 cells.  If the nurse bees detect a problem, they haul out the larvae and dispose of it.  Allsopp describes this unusual re-capping behaviour as ”checking under the hood” and says this is “the number one factor in our bees to overcome Varroa and other serious diseases such as American Foulbrood”.

But it’s the Cape honeybee’s capacity for “virgin births” that most fascinates scientists, and the possibility of replicating this in other areas of agriculture.

In another discovery, Allsopp says female worker bees in Cape honeybee colonies have the startling ability to produce the same pheromones as the queen.  The queen emits these pheromones to largely control and influence the smooth-running of the colony. The workers mimic this and become pseudo-queens, receiving the royal reverence from other workers that is normally reserved for a real queen.

But there is a sinister side to the marvels of the Cape honeybee.  The laying workers have the capacity to infiltrate and take over the hives of our other indigenous honeybees, Scutellata, which occur outside the fynbos biome.   Allsopp says in this respect, the Cape honeybee is a “unique social parasite”, so much so that it is listed as a bio-security threat in other parts of the world.  People attempting to import the Cape honeybee into the United States can be charged with terrorism!

Both South Africa’s indigenous honeybee populations are robust in comparison with honeybees in the rest of the world where there are dire predictions about their long-term survival.   Climate change, mono-cultural farming, the reckless use of pesticides, bee pests and diseases are causing significant losses of honeybees, traditionally regarded as apex pollinators.

The biggest challenge facing South African beekeepers is rapidly dwindling forage for their honeybees.  This threatens the large-scale pollination service that beekeepers provide to local agriculture.  Simply put, there won’t be enough managed bees to carry out this all-important job.

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