Let me tell ya ’bout the birds and the bees
And the flowers and the trees
And the moon up above
And a thing called “Love”
– Jewel Akens
Southern carmine bee-eaters spend much of the year nesting on the clay banks of the Luangwa River in Zambia and, beginning in September, hundreds of tunnels of up to two metres deep are dug by the happy feathered couples into steep river-banks above basking crocodiles. African honey bees will be one of the many winged insects plucked from the air to feed the thousands of young birds reared during the breeding season.
These multi-coloured air-borne hunters are not the only ones who obtain much-needed sustenance from the East African lowland honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata). The local beekeepers and honey hunters have been enjoying this natural bounty for hundreds of years. Traditionally wild hives were raided or simple bark hives were hung high up in the forest canopy and both honey and bees-wax were obtained. Unfortunately this often resulted in the death of the trees that provided the bark and the destruction of the hives in order to obtain the honey. It certainly also resulted in a lot of stinging with the only protection being an acquired resistance to the venomous stings.
Fortunately, many Zambian apiarists have realized that bees are an extremely rewarding renewable resource and this along with a world-wide move towards organic and pesticide-free honey has resulted in a move from what has been called honey-hunting to honey farming. The Miombo woodlands of Zambia are home to African honey bees that still live like bees have for thousands of years and provide some of the worlds purest honey. These woodlands are dominated by the mufuti, mnondo and Isoberlinia trees which are the preferred foraging ground for the local honey bees.
While the honey harvested from hives allows bee-keepers to earn substantial incomes and tastes great, perhaps the most important benefit of bees is their role in pollination. Honey bees, originally from Africa and Europe, are a vital link in our food supply and in much of the developed world are trucked over vast distances to pollinate different crops. The almond harvest in California requires near to 30 billion bees to be brought in from nearby states to attend to the pollination before leaving when their work is done.
There are over 20 000 different types of bees worldwide and while honey bees live in communities of up to 80 000 many other bees lead solitary lives. These solitary bees are often unnoticed as they go about pollinating many of the undomesticated wild flowers that brighten our lives with their annual show. The introverts of the bee world have escaped the hard-working industry that many honey bees are involved in, perhaps because they don’t make honey, but their contribution is no less vital.
The dazzling bee-eaters dart from their perch and return with bee in beak, the sting and venom are dislodged by rubbing on the branch and the tasty treat swallowed. Bees face many challenges besides being eaten or having their hives raided and global warming, loss of habitat, the use of pesticides and the development of farming mono-cultures are arguably far more of a threat. The undisturbed miombo woodlands of Zambia along with sustainable bee-keeping practices are vital to the future wellbeing of, not only bees, but the entire food chain.
Bee seed balls, bug hotels, bee-friendly flowers and pesticide-free gardening are just some of the small ways to reduce the pressure on these essential little wonders in our own gardens.
One incredible Zambian company involved in the art of making honey and beekeeping is Forest Fruits Ltd. with its Zambezi Gold. They are “Zambia’s leading producer of certified organic honey and beeswax, and the largest single exporter of honey on the African Continent.”
They employ 50 full-time staff and 30 seasonal workers in addition to out-growers, most of whom are based in Mwinilunga, North-Western Province. They work with 7,000 traditional beekeepers living in remote forests through an out-growers system that includes training and extension services. “We are committed to improving the income of beekeepers in a sustainable way, enhancing the quality of lives, and assisting people in growing their rural income sources.”
The Art of Bees