The importance of bees in iSimangaliso

24 Oct 2016

Spring has arrived in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site, the flowers are blossoming and the bees are buzzing our skies again. Or are they? The reality is that bees, and all that rely on them for pollination, are in a global crisis.

iSimangaliso is not just a ‘big game’ Park, and conservation is not only focused on the exciting tourist attractions that these species provide. Two of the key reasons that the Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site were biodiversity and ecological processes. And that means every living thing within these incredibly complex, delicately-balanced systems.

Pollinators like bees have generally been taking for granted but only recently have people realised how critical it is to preserve bees and other pollinators essential for agriculture and economies that depend on them. Bees comprise approximately a third of all pollinators, along with butterflies, flies and insects. (Photo: Craig Munro)

With bees recently being added for the first time to an endangered species list in the USA (seven species of yellow-faced bees in Hawaii), they are beginning to loom large on the international conservation radar. There are thousands of bee species worldwide, but the one most commonly known in South Africa, the honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata), is also under much threat due to destructive human action and climate change.

iSimangaliso-based bee keeper and citizen scientist Craig Munro gave us some insight into these vital pollinators: “So far, recent observations in the southern section of iSimangaliso indicate a healthy, thriving and strong honey bee population with recent good rain clearly boosting all the local flowering species. We are seeing very large, highly active swarms developing as we enter summer. The abundance of food after the rains has assisted with a rapid build-up of some of the largest swarms ever seen, which is good news for pollination in this area. Unfortunately areas which are still badly affected by the current drought are not showing the same signs. A recent bee relocation in the inland uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso exposed a very weak and struggling swarm in dire need of food after depletion of all their surplus.”

During late spring and early summer it is common for half the swarm to leave the nesting site and settle on a branch (as above) before finding a new home. This is called a trek swarm and although they usually only settle for a few hours they can remain for several days. Now is a good time for swarms to split with the abundance of food ensuring a rapid build-up of the colony and breeding of new queens which allows the old queen to leave the nest and start new colonies in suitable locations. (Photo: Craig Munro)
Says Munro: “The importance of bees as pollinators simply cannot be understated in any area or sector which relies on healthy and vigorous natural growth. Virtually all trees, plants and shrubs in iSimangaliso and surrounding areas are primarily pollinated by honey bees. Every floral species, from the spectacular winter flowering of Aloes (Liliaceae family) and Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis), spring Coral trees (Erythrina lysistemon) and glorious summer Sweet thorn (Vachellia karoo) are abuzz with activity during the height of their flowering period.” (Photo: Craig Munro)
The two photos above illustrate a typical nest and habitat of our local bees. The second photo is a close up of a section of comb, showing the eggs laid by the queen, one per cell, and the developing larvae which has not yet been sealed. These combs are all fairly new built but indicate a strong and healthy bee population near the Eastern Shores section of iSimangaliso. (Photos: Craig Munro)

Fortunately bees, when left alone, are highly adaptable and resilient and able to survive cold, drought and excessively wet periods, provided their habitat and nesting sites are not interfered with. Therefore it is vital that as a species they are not considered pests and destroyed; and equally critical that they are afforded as much protection as any other of the myriad species within our World Heritage Site.


Beekeeping and the sale of honey can be an important source of income for local communities and the latest cohort of thirty entrepreneurs from communities adjacent to the Park, supported through iSimangaliso’s Rural Enterprise Access Programme (REAP) includes two entrepreneurs with fledgling beekeeping businesses. The REAP initiative, which currently has around 180 entrepreneurs, is supported by the Global Environmental Facility through the World Bank and has been recognised as one of four finalists in the 2016 JP McNulty Foundation awards for outstanding global community projects.

South African research

According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), insect, birds, bats and other animals serve as pollinators while they forage for their own survival, consequently providing a free ecosystem service upon which we depend. The declines in pollinator populations led to studies being undertaken in seven developing countries from 2011 to early 2015.

Findings from the studies of monitoring pollinators in three agricultural crops (apples, onion seed and oil sunflowers) in South Africa show that honey bees are the most important crop pollinators. As South Africa’s honey bees are indigenous and an integral part of our biodiversity, SANBI investigated the resources underpinning the managed honey bee industry. According to researchers, a lack of good quality and variety of forage (consisting of nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein) can lead to unhealthy honey bee colonies that are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. This, in turn, can lead to insufficient pollination of our important agricultural crop flowers, leading to decreased yield or quality of the food crop.

Why does Biodiversity matter?

The JRS Biodiversity Foundation is an independent grant-making foundation based in Seattle, Washington that awards grants to increase the access to and use of biodiversity information in sub-Saharan Africa. They currently support one of SANBI’s projects.

According to the JRS, “Biodiversity is the foundation of life on Earth and includes the diversity of species, populations, and ecosystems.”

Below is an excerpt from their website:

An estimated 50,000 species disappear from our planet every year. While scientists have identified 1.9 million species to date, they believe there are millions more that have yet to be discovered. Thus, the loss is greater than we likely even know. Population growth and economic development are the primary drivers of biodiversity loss. Yet, despite a growing awareness of the problem, we continue to consume resources and degrade habitats and place our livelihoods and very existence at risk. When we lose species forever, we lose their potential for helping us sustain our lives and we reduce the resilience of nature and society to adapt to future changes in our environment.

iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis reiterates: “Yet again, we are reminded how essential our role as custodians of our natural resources is, for it is not only the land and animals that protected areas are conserving, but the very foundation of the country’s food sources as well. Good science and information are needed to ensure better decisions are taken. There is not a person in this country or on this planet who is not dependent on this sustenance. It all starts here.”

The global picture

  • Most crops (about 70% – 90% according to various studies) that are used today require pollination to develop fruits, nuts, and seeds.
  • It is estimated that those crops account for one trillion US dollars in annual sales of agriculture products around the globe. Examples of common crops depending on bee pollination include broccoli, blueberry, cherry, apple, and cucumbers.
  • The vast majority of pollinators are wild.
  • Many countries worldwide have documented a great decline in the number of bee populations including China, Brazil, North America, and Europe.

Media enquiries should be directed to Bronwyn Coppola +27 83 450 9111 or