In our first interview with bee researcher, Ms Jenny Cullinan, (co-founder of UJUBEE), we covered the research of South African wild bees for the last 3 years, mainly at Cape Point Nature Reserve, bee conservation and collaborative work with related international institutions. In Part Two we look at disease in bees, artificial insemination versus natural breeding and self medicating to maintain healthy immune systems in the colonies, among others.
American Foulbrood (AFB) is the most serious bacterial disease of honey bee brood worldwide, (‘brood’ refers to the embryo or egg, the larva and the pupa stages in the life of bees), affecting brood in the first 30 hours of life and resulting in brood disintegration (spore infection) and eventual abandonment of the nest. An interesting fact, recently discovered on the Cape Peninsula, is that the two bee sub-species, i.e. Cape Honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis) and African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata), are starting to identify that the “foul smell” from contaminated hives is problematic and observations confirm that infected/abandoned tree nests are not visited or raided by other healthy bees in the same area, only once the wax moth has moved in and cleaned out the space, do new colonies move in with no negative impacts at all. Is the Cape bee outsmarting this disease?
The bees have incredibly strong immune systems mainly due to our floral kingdom and approximately 300 different essential plant oils have been identified in propolis, which is a blend of resin, wax flakes and pollen, having antimicrobial properties that protect the hive from viruses and bacteria and which they use to patch holes, seal cracks and build panels in the hive. In terms of bee residence, hives have very smooth surfaces, whereas wild nests are normally located in trees, crevices of rocks, etc with rough surfaces, required to affix and coat the entire area with propolis, including the ‘front curtain’ from where the bees launch and return to the nest where they need the essential oils in propolis to disinfect themselves. Researchers found that bees living in hives/nests coated with propolis have lower bacteria in their body and also ‘quieter’ immune systems.
There is complete section of a colony known as the ‘hygiene bees, that are essentially the immune system of the colony, of which one is the ‘resin-collecting bee’, a specialist in collecting plant resins, which is key in manufacture of propolis. If we continue with introduction and use of smooth surface or synthetic hives for honey production, we may possibly lose the ‘resin-collecting bee’ and other specialist in the colonies, as they will be bred out, having less or no further importance.
Hybridizing (artifical insemination) versus natural selection (wild colonies) in bee breeding is a hotly debated subject worldwide as there are farmers and bee-keepers who want to try and breed a particular strain into being solely for good honey production, docile colonies, etc. In the wild, drone congregational areas are filled with drones from all kinds of colonies, and the queen bee will mate with up to 17 different drones (fittest/strongest) on the wing and store the sperm within her body for her lifetime, giving her a diverse amount of genetic material that she can rely on for producing different kinds of strong colony offspring, e.g. good foragers, guard bees, etc., but there will always be very strong genetic material around the hygiene group of bees, i.e. undertaker bees, oil-collecting and housekeeping bees in the wild, this genetic information is very finely tuned and known only to the bees.
Mankind’s interference in the bees breeding cycles in order to obtain a “good strain of bee”, due to greed and ease of colony management, of which there are many so-called specialists around the world, will not be doing the bee populations throughout the world any favours, but rather lead to the weakening of the genetic pool and possible loss of the bee family entirely over time.
Leave the bees to breed naturally and find their own way of coping in the wild !
Links: Watch South African Wild Bees (Part One)