“Assuming all bees are honey bees, is like thinking all birds are chickens.”
When we think of bees, we generally think of the little yellow and black striped stinging insects that create honey and serve their queen and hive with no fear of self-sacrifice or hard work. Whilst this is accurate for most honey bees, this does not necessarily correctly describe most bees. The confusion occurs because we regularly use the term “bee” as interchangeable with “honey bee”. This one can chalk up to the fact we as humans have developed a working relationship over thousands of years with the honey bee and are simply more familiar with them. This over-familiarity has unintentional consequences as it leads to the majority of other bee species being overlooked or completely disregarded.
There are an estimated 30 000 bee species in the world that make up the superfamily Apoidea. Of these, roughly 1 300 species call South Africa their home, and of these bees living in our homeland only 10 actually produce honey, 2 of which are used commercially. The biology and behaviour of bee species differs greatly. However, the main similarity between all bees is that they feed their larvae with pollen. This explains why bees, both honey bees and native wild bees, are considered a highly important pollinator group.
Whilst honey bees are social and often take all the credit, 90% of global bee species are solitary bees and are often overlooked. They are referred to as solitary because each female bee builds and inhabits their nests alone. These bees, often completely harmless, build small nests in burrows or cavities in the ground, in dead wood or even in hollow reeds. Solitary bees come in all shapes and sizes and are extremely important as they are efficient pollinators in our agricultural, natural and urban landscapes. Often solitary bees are highly effective and specialise in pollinating specific plant species and are better pollinators than honey bees. Besides the impact on agriculture, losing solitary bees from an environment can lead to plant species loss, loss of fauna that depend on these plants for food and shelter and a general loss of biodiversity as a whole.
Worldwide, we are losing pollinators at an alarming rate. As we answer the global call to “save the bees” we can’t just focus on honey bees. Managed hives of commercial honey bees have actually grown globally by 83% since the 1960s. Our concentration should arguably be on solitary and wild bees as well as other insects that pollinate. We can do this by planting indigenous and encouraging a wide variety in our gardens, eliminate pesticides and provide alternative habitat. Why not put up a solitary bee hotel at your home? You’ll be amazed by who comes to visit and the rewards will be sweeter than honey.