Bee Harvesting

Posted under Eco-Tourism Blog by Grootbos on 11th July 2012

At Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, even the birds and the bees are (literally!) bright-eyed and bushy-tailed - having a choice selection of more than 800 succulent fynbos flower species to feed on. During the winter months, the hills and dales at Grootbos come alive with bursts of pink Erica irregularis, an endangered flowering fynbos species exclusive to the Grootbos Reserve and a small area towards Stanford. The brilliant hues of pink petals draw the Cape honey bees like magnets and provide ample nectar from which these buzzing busybodies create a uniquely flavoured honey. Grootbos has its own beekeeper Johan Strydom, who, with the help of the Growing the Future team, manages and oversees the 40 triple storey manmade hives. The honey is harvested twice a year - exclusively for the kitchen of the two Grootbos restaurants - Red Indigo and The Garden.


A new kind of honey

The first batch of unique Grootbos honey, flavoured with the unmistakable flowery taste of the exquisite pink Erica irregularis, has just been harvested . . . and boy, was that an eye-opening adventure! Kitted out to the hilt in protective bee suits - from veiled hoodies to thick booties and gloves – I accompanied Nina Johannsen and project manager Johan Strydom of the Grootbos Growing the Future project, to some of the 40 triple storey hives that have been built on the reserve over the past two years. Grootbos Private Nature Reserve has over the years become celebrated as one of the most intriguing and diverse nature reserves, claiming the title of the most documented plant reserve in the Cape Floral Kingdom. Few stories illustrate the diversity of the area better than the unique relationship between the Cape honey bee and Erica Irregularis.

Sweet symbiosis

It was a cold, drizzly morning. The light rain washed the landscape into a brilliant collage of contrasting colour and vibrancy, with sheets of bright pink Erica irregularis bursting through fields of white blombos, yellow bietou, proteas and other flowering Erica species. The cold, wet conditions luckily also made the bees less aggressive when we smoked the worker bees out of their cozy nests to get to the sweet stuff. Watching the Cape honey bees angrily buzzing and bustling around to protect their hard-earned food storage and revered queen, is both a scary and spectacular experience. The Cape honey bee (Capebee) is endemic to the Western Cape. It is a southern South African subspecies of the Western honey bee. They are unique among honey bee subspecies because workers can lay unfertilized diploid, female eggs by means of thelytoky* while workers of other subspecies (and, in fact, unmated females of virtually all other eusocial insects) can only lay haploid, male eggs. The diploid embryo that develops from the egg can develop into a worker bee or a queen bee depending on the amount of royal jelly the larva receives.
* (see underneath)

Smoking hot stuff

Johan had to break the beeswax seals between the 3-layered hives to inspect the golden honeycombs inside, all the time fending off the kamikaze attacks from thousands of fiery, feisty fellows fluttering around like . . . well, busy bees! One determined fellow managed to penetrate my multi-layered protective gear and landed inside my veil, facing me menacingly from within a few centimetres. Johan responded to my anxious squeals by casually brushing it off . . . Nina soon became an expert with the bee smoker and happily pumped away while Johan removed the various brood boxes. Johan uses carton egg boxes to produce a steady stream of thick white smoke that is pumped into a hive. Bees communicate by scent and the dense smoke disrupts their ability to stay coordinated as a group. Without the ability to sound an alarm or mount a group attack, bees stay calm to give you a safer honey harvest.

Bee-auti-ful and unBEElievably delicious

After removing several hives filled with delicious golden honey, we took the precious yield to the Growing the Future team who immediately set about uncapping the honeycombs and placing the superframes in an extractor. The latter serves as a huge centrifuge, spinning the honey from the frames. Soon enough, a thick, golden syrup - Grootbos honey! - started to drip from the tap.

Luckily for us, one of the hives broke and we greedily licked and munched on the intact honeycombs stuck to the box. I scored a jar filled with translucent honeycombs . . . and if I may say so myself, it is unBEElievably delicious!

* Thelytoky comes from the Greek thely, meaning "female", and tokos, meaning "birth". Thelytokousparthenogenesis is a type of parthenogenesis in which females are produced from unfertilized eggs. It is rare in the animal kingdom and has only been reported in about 1,500 species, including the Cape honey bee. It means that the laying worker bees produce unfertilized diploid eggs (with the full complement of 32 chromosomes). The diploid embryo that develops from the egg can develop into a worker bee or a queen bee depending on the amount of royal jelly the larva receives.

Did you know?

Honey is a miracle food - it never spoils! It was reported that archaeologists found 2000 year old jars of honey in Egyptian tombs and they still tasted delicious! Although we know that bacteria loves sugar, the unique chemical composition of low water content and relatively high acidic level in honey creates a low pH (3.2-4.5) environment that makes it very unfavourable for bacteria or other micro-organism to grow. Honey has many medicinal properties and thanks to its anti-bacterial qualities, it is often used as a dressing to avoid inflammation in burning wounds and other wounds. It is the most stable food and because it naturally resists molds, fungi and other bacteria, it never goes bad and can last forever without refrigeration!

How do bees make honey from nectar?

Harvesting the honey, I could not help having empathy with the thousands of worker bees valiantly and futilely trying to ward us off and away from their food storage. The Cape honey bees use their stores of energy-rich honey to get them through lean times, including winter. Worker bees gather nectar from flowers and convert it into enough honey to keep the colony alive. But HOW do bees make honey from nectar?


First, worker bees fly out from the hive in search of nectar-rich flowers. Using its straw-like proboscis, a worker bee drinks the liquid nectar and stores it in a special stomach called the honey stomach. The bee continues to forage, visiting hundreds of flowers, until its honey stomach is full. Within the honey stomach, enzymes break down the complex sugars of the nectar into simpler sugars, which are less prone to crystallization. This process is called inversion. With a full belly, the worker bee heads back to the hive and regurgitates the already modified nectar for a hive bee. The hive bee ingests the sugary offering and further breaks down the sugars. It then regurgitates the inverted nectar into a cell of the honeycomb. Now, the hive bees beat their wings furiously, fanning the nectar to evaporate its remaining water content. As the water evaporates, the sugars thicken into honey. Once the honey is finished, the hive bee caps the beeswax cell, sealing the honey into the honeycomb for later consumption. A single worker bee produces only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Working cooperatively, thousands of worker bees can produce over 200 pounds of honey for the colony within a year.
Link: How Bees Make Honey - How Do Bees Make Honey?

What is nectar?

Nectar contains about 80% water, along with complex sugars. Left in its natural state, nectar would ferment. In order to store the sugars in a usable and efficient state, bees convert the nectar into honey. Honey contains only 14-18% water. Pound for pound, honey provides a much greater energy source than pure nectar. The actual process of transforming the flower nectar into honey requires teamwork. Older workers do the foraging and bring the nectar back to the hive. There, younger hive bees complete the task of turning it into honey.


For those who wondered why a dapper little bee has to die after it stung a person or animal when protecting its queen or hive, we add this link. The story and award-winning pictures demonstrate it better than words can ever do.

SOURCE: Bug Squad

comments powered by Disqus