The Bravery of the Cape Bee – Part 2

Another trip to these incredible small, brave survivors clinging to life after the devastating Cape Town bushfires of 2015 …

If you sail into the City of Cape Town, dominating the landscape will be the majesty of Table Mountain.  But behind the famous ‘Table Top’ the scenery is equally spectacular. Here the mountain ranges in folds down towards the south, crossing deep ravines and skirting above the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. In winter these ravines turn into spectacular waterfalls, rushing and tumbling headfirst towards the sea. In summer the mountain does not lose its greenness, but all is quiet and still under the heat of the African sun.

I was sitting on the terrace of the Vineyard Hotel having breakfast with my cousin Suzanne when she looked up at the mountain. “Funny,” she said, “looking at this spectacular sight it is hard to believe that, just a little further along this mountain range, it all is charred and blackened.” Last week’s ravaging fires were still uppermost in our minds.

“Yes,” I replied, “we have all heard the experts telling us how every fifteen years or so we need these veld fires – that the protea bushes need the heat for the seeds to regenerate, that the indigenous bulbs will soon spring up and that in eighteen months or so the entire mountain will look like a garden. But what about the ‘urban fringe’ – those people who lost their houses, and what about the little things – the tortoises, the snakes, the small insects, and so on?”

“What about your bees?” Suzanne asked. So I told her.

I told her how the previous week, the day after the fire, I had found a small nucleus of melted brood frames and dead bees. How I had lifted the congealed mess up and examined it closely, feeling utterly devastated for my once healthy, busy hive. Then, how I had almost unbelievably seen one whole and traumatised bee climb through the charred brood and into the sunlight. My only thought was that these tiny creatures had fought a long and brave battle against the heat – fanning their queen and protecting their last bit of honey around her. Then a few drops of honey dropped onto the sand and I was convinced. Where there was one bee there must be others. So I took a giant leap and re-hived the congealed mess, put the hive stand in tins of oil for the black ants, tied it down for the baboons and put a heavy rock on the top for the raging south-easter. Then I had to leave.

“Trouble is,” I said to Suzanne, “I am running out of time to get back there. I leave for London in a few days and I would give anything to have just one look, and to see what is happening.”

“I’m free until 4 this afternoon!” said Suzanne “Let’s go!”. I have always liked this cousin. It would take well over two hours to get there and back. I looked at her, put my car keys on the table, and said “You’re on.”

The drive down took us over mountains, through valleys and along the sea Most of area was charred and blackened, simply ravaged by the worst veld fire imaginable. We were silent as we drove, each immersed in thoughts of the suffering that it had brought with it. Community spirit in the Cape has been high. Someone I know even took his prized rugby tickets for an important game to the local fire station. There he offered them to the brave firemen who had fought day and night for seven days. Sadly, one of our most experienced helicopter pilots tragically lost his life when his helicopter malfunctioned and plunged earthwards while water-bombing the blaze.

“And here I am worrying about a bee.” I thought. It did seem out of proportion, but by this time we had arrived. It was a simply stunning day … one of these days that are few and far between … for on this battered tip of Africa winds can range from a 60 knot off-shore southeaster to a 60 knot on-shore northwester.  As we walked through the charred and desolate veld the still calm was almost eerie: the peace of today, and the raging crackle and power of last week, contrasting starkly in our minds.

Within sight of the hive we stopped short, not believing what we saw. There was huge activity around the hive. We walked closer – buzzy bees were everywhere, all around the hive. “Better kit up.” I said, and we walked back to the house. Kitted up in our bee suits we went closer.

Huge activity – bees coming and going through both entrances. What an incredible change from the last visit!

“I don’t like it.” I said to Suzanne, “These bees are too many, and too active”. I sat down to watch them, but could see no pollen on their legs – not that there was much around in the veld anyway. “I fear that these are other bees, ones that have found the hive’s honey and have come to rob.” I said. “Oh dear!” said Suzanne, “Well let’s go for a walk on the beach before we head back.”

“You go,” I said, “I’ll stay here a little longer”.

I settled back on my haunches and watched the movement in and out of the hive, trying to work out some sort of pattern. It was then that I noticed a bit of fighting.  Or did I? This particular brood box has two openings and a solid centre. I took my bee tool and slid it across the one opening and watched. Yes, more intense fighting was happening on the only entrance available … I thought, but was it just optimism on my part?

In one of my beekeeping books I remember reading that if you have robbers and a weakened swarm you need to close up half the entrance to give the bees a chance to concentrate their defence. Rather like an army that cannot fight effectively on two fronts.

I walked back to my store room. Once again I took a leap of faith – for was this my ever optimistic nature willing there to be bees in my hive ready to start again, or were these just wild robber bees trying to find feed as best they could?  I do not know, but once again it seemed worth a try. I found a piece of wood and two panel-pin nails and a hammer.

I walked back through the desolate veld and hammered half the entrance closed. “There you are bees” I said, “I have done the best that I can. If you are inside there, may the Cape winter be mild to you, may the winter bulbs spring up and feed you, and may your queen, new or old, be fertile and produce lots of tiny furry bees for the spring.”

Robber barricade securely in place.

“See you in September.” I whispered.


(Missed part 1?  Read it here …)

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The Bravery of the Cape Bee

Ever since I discovered my grandfather’s abandoned hive in the veld I have kept bees. This has been just a small hobby, the least hives I have had being two and the most five. I have often thought that the most depressing experience a beekeeper can have is to arrive at the hive one day and find there are no bees coming in or out of it. The fires that have raged through the Cape Peninsula in South Africa this week have proved me wrong.

Bees will do anything to protect their hive and their queen – as we know only too well, if there is a predator from outside they will attack. But what happens when the predator is fierce, hot and fast – a veld fire fanned by gale-force winds and fed by the dry crackling bush of summer’s end? Bees will then go into panic mode. They will cluster around the queen and fan her constantly, remaining at their posts and doing their duty until they die.

The day after the veld fire that raged at the back of our house I walked through the charcoal sticks and white sand towards my hive. Smouldering patches of fynbos were still sending puffs of grey smoke into the air and there was a suffocating smell of ash and burnt wood. Within sight of the hive I stopped. The two supers had burnt out completely. The metal lid was in bits nearby and the outer walls of the brood box had gone. Remaining on the metal stand were about five brood frames, totally charred and balanced at a crazy angle across the bottom of the stand. I went closer. The five blackened frames were stuck together, and hundreds of dead bees lay all across the top. Although the brood was there it was fairly solid and unrecognisable.

Hive box burnt away, a few brood frames remain
Hive box burnt away, a few brood frames remain

‘What happened here’ I wondered ‘did the bees fan to such an extent that these centre brood frames could not actually burn?’ Almost too incredible to believe as everything in the surrounding veld had gone. I lifted the charred mass, peering closer at the dead bees – some had lost their wings, some looked more like oval toffee.

Valiant bees burned at their posts
Valiant bees burned at their posts

Then I saw a tiny flutter, and to my utter amazement one whole bee crawled out of the charcoal brood and towards my hand. No more than one. But, as I kept holding the five frames, a few small drops of golden honey dropped onto the white sand.

Some honey in the middle of the combs
Some honey in the middle of the combs

The Cape honeybee has an almost unbelievable ability. Under extreme circumstances, and if they lose their queen, they are able to ‘morph’ a new queen from a worker bee. Now I don’t know if they have lost their queen, and I don’t know how many bees there are to help that one survivor. But I do know that it was quite the most depressing and humbling sight I have ever seen. How those bees must have fought to survive the extreme heat and smoke inhalation is beyond me.

With a probable failure risk of about 90%, I have now taken a leap of faith. I happened to have a spare super and a couple of unwaxed but wired frames in my storeroom. (Wax moth is prevalent here and I have just lost my other hive to it). I put the new brood box on the stand, placed the charred stuck-together mess of frames into the centre, and a few new frames into the brood box with them.  I stood the feet of the stands in tins filled with oil (black ants are ferocious here). I tied the box and lid together and staked it down into the sand (baboons are also prevalent here). I even put a little dog’s bowl of water down, although the wind and the sun will drain that pretty quickly.

Re-hived and battened down - can the hive recover?
Re-hived and battened down – can the hive recover?

Then I stood by and watched the entrance. Two bees crawled out, both wingless and too pathetic to watch. Then one more, whole, traumatised bee crawled out, fell onto the sand, crept around for a bit and finally flew off to a nearby patch of tiny unburned veld. I waited and watched for some time, but saw no more.

I do not live in that isolated place and so have had to leave. The earliest I can go back is in a week’s time. Will that one bee have others trying to eat their way out of the charcoal to join it? Is there a queen in the middle, still protected? Are there any eggs? What can they possibly do with that charcoaled brood, which should be thrown away but contains their only honey store? I do not know, but like any rescue operation, if you can help even one survivor then you have at least done the very best that you can do.


A Bee Glossary: Very simply a beehive works as follows …

Brood: young bees at various stages of development - eggs, larvae, and pupae

Brood box:  where the queen bee and the brood live (the bigger box at the bottom of the hive)

Supers: the bees’ pantry (smaller boxes on top of the brood box where the bees store honey

Wax Moth: a brownish moth that lays its eggs in beehive - its destructive caterpillars cover the combs with silken tunnels and feed on the beeswax

‘Veld’: a loose term for uncultivated land in South Africa.


Read part 2 here


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