Bees And Trees

By Ané Venter

Sitting on the carpet in my third grade classroom, one of my earliest memories is one of our teacher reading a riveting storybook to the class. Suddenly there’s a shriek and a great commotion. A few kids down from me, someone gasps and jumps to their feet, followed by the person beside them, ensuing great panic. Pretty soon, much to the lovely teacher’s dismay, most of the kids on the carpet have been swept up in the sudden frenzy. The rest of us have stayed seated and are craning our heads, trying to decode the cause for the sudden panic. “There’s a bee!”

Of course. Nothing inspires disproportionate panic quite as well as a honeybee. If not for fear of their searing stings, some people are quite allergic to their venom–and one sting could be fatal. However, most people will come to no lasting harm should they be stung by a bee, whereas, on the other hand, the poor bee will have lost its life in its desperate attempt at self-defence. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s safe to say that bees have more reason to be afraid of us than we are of them.

The global and local bee population is made up of many different bee species – not all of which make honey. In South Africa there are many wild bee species that can all be classified into one of six categories. One of these categories is known as Apidae, which is where Apis mellifera – the honeybee – fits in. Within this category of Honeybees, there are 28 different sub-categories, or ‘types’ scattered across Europe, Asia and Africa. Only two types are found in South Africa:

  1. The African Honeybee–Apis mellifera scutellata – predominantly found in the Northern parts of the country.
  2. The Cape Honeybee–Apis mellifera capensis – mostly found in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces (Hickman, 2015).

Humans Need Bees

Our reliance on bees and the services they provide us with are completely intrinsic to our survival as a species. While bees are most famous for their pollination of flowers and, thus, (along with butterflies and other pollinating insects) responsible for the wonderful aesthetic of a spring bloom, this is just one of the many important roles they play on this planet. Bees help maintain the biodiversity in nature. Biodiversity is essentially a variety of plants and animals, and it is one of the things by which we can measure the health status of a natural system. The activity of pollinators such as bees allow for diversity within a natural system by ensuring the survival of a great number of trees and other plants from one season to the next (Berliner, 2005). The benefit of biodiversity lies in a variation in the types of plants (and their respective methods of survival and additions to the overall ecosystem), which translates to a greater selection of genes present in a population. This makes for a stronger suit for natural and positive selection (S. Schaffner, 2008).

But bees have an even more direct relation to our survival; in that they are responsible for the pollination and consequent production of at least 50 different food crops in South Africa (Allsop, 2014). Bee colonies are utilised in commercial agriculture by large scale crop producers, where they are put to work doing what they do best: pollinating. Beekeepers who own a large number of hives will essentially rent their beehives out to agricultural farms, physically transporting up to fifty beehives to the area around the crops in need of pollination. The beehives will usually be arranged around the perimeter of the crop, so that a specific number of bees will pollinate a certain area, and meet the pollination demands within that area. These crops include avocados, litchis, canola, apples, onions, plums, to name a few. A portion of these plants, at the end of their bee-powered production cycle, have their fruit harvested and packed for consumption in South Africa; but as much as 55% of the fresh produce grown in the South African agricultural industry are exported (Allsop, 2014). So, in this way, bees are largely contributing to our export market and overall economy.

If the above mentioned services weren’t enough, there are also those local markets that are reliant on bees and the things they make. For example, there has been a surge in local natural beauty brands and ranges that use beeswax and bee propolis as a base substance (also known as ‘bee glue’, propolis is a sticky black substance found in beehives, with amazing antibacterial, anti fungal, and antiviral properties). Additionally, there are small-scale beekeepers that harvest and sell honey in the retail market, with several different types available.Many of the beekeepers who are renting their hives out to agriculture sector are also harvesting the resultant honey.

A beekeeper in protective clothing, arranging beehives in an almond grove. These bees will pollinate the almond blossoms, playing a key role in the lifecycle of these trees. Image from: High Country News:The Silence of the Bees,March 19, 2007,by H. Nordhaus,

Bees And Disease

In recent years we have heard many things regarding the survival of our bee populations, both wild and those under the care of beekeepers. Unfortunately, the planet’s bee populations are suffering as a direct result of our activities. One of the more obvious issues is the loss of appropriate habitats. Bees – as small as they may be – require food, water and shelter. When we clear natural areas for urban development, or when natural areas undergo huge alterations (like prescribed burning – as is the standard practice for the Fynbos vegetation in the Western Cape) we are usually overlooking the fact that there could be one or several nearby bee colonies that rely on the plants in those areas for their needs. Without reliable known sources of food and water, a colony either folds, or moves to a different location – which in turn negatively impacts the rest of the ecosystem that is no longer pollinated in its absence.

Various products that are made by bees, using the collected nectar and pollen. These include beeswax, bee pollen (for immune support), honey and royal jelly (a rare substance fed to juvenile bees). Image from Ascania-Pack: Bee products: kinds and their healing properties, 2019.02.15,

Bee colonies are also faced with various ailments and diseases, just like we are, with the most alarming flaring up in recent years. Namely, American Foulbrood (AFB) and European Foulbrood (EFB). These diseases effect the juvenile bees in a colony – basically killing off all the ‘new-borns’ (brood) in a beehive, resulting in little to no rejuvenation of the hive population. This can eventually cause the entire colony to die off. There are no known treatments or cures for these diseases, and the current solution is to burn the infected hives to eradicate the disease-causing bacteria, before it can be carried to and infect the next colony.

Colonies infected with AFB must be destroyed by burning, so as to contain the spread of the culprit bacteria. These infected ‘supers’ (framed structures found in a beehive) were cleaned of all resident bees and subsequently burnt. Image from Michigan State University: Diagnosing and Treating American Foulbrood in Honeybee Colonies, 2018, by M. Milbrath,

Furthermore, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon that seems to come hand-in-hand with the use of bees in the agricultural sector; where a seemingly healthy, functioning hive will inexplicably be abandoned by most of the adult colony, leaving behind the queen bee, and a handful of young worker bees. This results in a massive loss of livestock for beekeepers, who are struggling to identify the cause of CCD (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2018). Further problems related to the agricultural industry is the exposure of the bees to various toxic chemicals in pesticides and fungicides used on food crops. Bees are just as affected by these harmful poisons as those insects they are originally intended to target, and so colonies are pretty much dying off soon after pollinating apple or almond orchards (McGiveny, 2020). There are various other infections and pathogens that can infect bees and their colonies, some of which they are able to fend off by their own devices, and some of which are exacerbated by our practices.

Bees Need Trees

The question is, what can we do to help bees? They are present in almost every ecosystem that contains plants, and so we can be sure that they are existing all around us, pollinating and collecting nectar to manufacture their own food source: honey. In order to support the overall population of bees, one of the key things we are able to do is re-establish their favourable habitats. In order to achieve this, we at PlantNation have looked into tree species that could potentially benefit all of the South African bee species. There are a number of trees that, when in bloom, will provide a nearby colony of bees with the nectar it needs to continue thriving.

A honeybee in action: collecting nectar from blooming flowers, the honeybee stores the collected pollen in the pollen sacs found on its back legs. These pollen sacs fill by themselves as the bees travel from flower to flower. Their fluffy bodies further aid in the spread of pollen between male and female flowers. Image from: UPI: South African beekeepers blame insecticide for 1M-plus bee deaths, 2018, by D. Haynes,

In the Western Cape, the Cape honeybee plays a huge role in the growth and continuation of the endemic Fynbos vegetation. This vegetation class is unique to South Africa, and plants therein form part of the Cape Floral Kingdom – one of the six floral kingdoms in the world. The bees found in the Western Cape that pollinate this area are therefore key players in preserving one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites (UNESCO, 2020). There are little to no tree species found within the Fynbos vegetation class, but a variety of species that still grow within this part of the country that can be planted in urban gardens and natural areas to provide an additional source of pollen and nectar for the resident bees.

There are a great number of trees growing in the northern and eastern parts of South Africa, with our focus being mainly on Gauteng. The city of Johannesburg is commonly referred to as having the largest man-made urban forest in the world, with more than 5 million trees covering 1645 km2 . That’s more than 3000 trees per square kilometre (Disemelo, 2013). Regardless of this dense tree cover, there is still a greater need for bee resources. Planting trees in your own private garden is a great manner in which to ensure that the bees that may be living in the vicinity have a resource to visit on their daily nectar rounds.

A view from the top in Johannesburg, Gauteng. One of the largest urban man-made forests in the world. Johannesburg is home to a very large percentage of alien jacaranda trees, brought here and established by the original settlers in the old mining town. Bees collect essential resources from indigenous and alien trees alike, but even in a city like JHB, bees are still lacking the adequate resources. Image from:  In Your Pocket Guide: Jacarandas in Johannesburg, 2020, by C. Appleyard,

As an organisation oriented around environmental rehabilitation and conservation, we believe that planting the right trees is the best way in which we can support our South African bee population. Trees provide an obvious necessary resource for bees, in that their canopies provide shelter, their flowers provide nectar, and leaves capture droplets of rainwater. Furthermore, anyone can join us in our efforts to simultaneously plant more trees and help the bees. Thus, we have come up with a list of trees that are suitable and favoured by bees. This list is divided into those trees best for planting in the Western Cape, alongside the scrubby Fynbos, and those better suited to grow in Gauteng province. Some of the trees can be planted in either area.

List of Bee-friendly Trees for growth in two provincial areas, South Africa

*Trees highlighted in red are suitable for planting in either region



Western Cape

  • Waterberry (Syzygium cordatum)
  • Blue guarri (Euclea crispa subsp. crispa)
  • Wild silver oak (Brachylaena discolour)
  • Sickle bush (Dichrostachys cinerea)
  • September bush (Polygala myrtifolia)
  • Wild laburnum (Calpurnia aurea subsp. aurea)
  • African Teak (Pterocarpus angolensis)
  • Apple Leaf (Philenoptera violacea)
  • Coastal coral tree (Erythrina caffra)
  • Forest elder (Nuxia floribunda)


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