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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2 thoughts on “The Bravery of the Cape Bee”

  1. I’m enchanted can’t wait to read Part 2
    B…. Bill is it you writing this B…. beautiful Bee anecdote.

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