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August 18 is World Honey Bee Day. Build support habitats to help these important pollinators of plants and crops

How many bees visit your garden? Without pollinators, plants would not produce seed or set fruit. The declining number of bees is a reflection of a sterile landscape, a loss of habitat and attack by parasites. It is also a result of intensive farming and the use of pesticides.

The world-wide problem of dwindling bee populations has resulted in national and international bee awareness days to bring attention to this threat and what this means for our global food system.

In 2009, beekeepers in the US promoted Honey Bee Awareness Day as an official day to honour honey bees and bee-keeping. National Honeybee Foraging Week (September 22-29) was launched to highlight the threat to bees in many parts of the world, including South Africa.

The UN General Assembly in December 2017 unanimously adopted a decision, initiated by the Republic of Slovenia, to proclaim May 20 World Bee Day. Anton Jana, the pioneer of bee-keeping, was born on May 20 in 1734. Slovenia is one of the top bee-keeping countries in the world, and home to the Carniolan bee, with one in every 200 inhabitants a bee-keeper.

DID YOU KNOW? In parts of China, orchards are hand pollinated because there are no bees. Picture: Etienne Cremer

World Honey Bee Day

The day, celebrated annually on the third Saturday of August, recognises not only the honey bee, but the bee-keepers who tend the hives.

There are two indigenous Cape honey bees in South Africa, Apis mellifera capensis, and African honey bee, Apis mellifera scutellata. The Cape honey bee, an important pollinator for fynbos and agricultural crops, was originally found only in the Western Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape. The African honey bee is found in most of South Africa and visits indigenous and exotic flowers for pollen and nectar.

Bees need nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein, and eucalyptus trees are an important and dependable source. New regulations only require the removal of gum trees where they are invasive or have a negative environmental impact.

Create a beehive in five steps

1 No harm

This is a garden where no insecticides or herbicides are used.

2 Water

Bees need a water source. A shallow birdbath with small stones as landing places would be ideal.

The Buzz of Manchester, a vibrant and practical urban garden, was designed as a haven for bees for the 2018 RHS Flower Show Tatton Park, held in Cheshire. Picture: RHS

3 A bee pantry needs variety

The wider the variety of plants, the more available will be a year-round food pantry. Plant flowers in groups to make it easier for bees to find them and choose single flowers that have not been hybridised to be pollen-free (some modern varieties of sunflowers have no pollen). Flowers that are double or have incurving petals are not easy for bees to gain access. Sticky flowers (some ericas) can trap bees so they are not suitable for a bee garden.

Bees have different tongue lengths. Some bees prefer the flat, open flowers of the daisy family, while others visit tubular flowers of agapanthus, aloe, fuchsia, gladiolus, tree fuchsia (Halleria lucida), lavender, protea, salvia and watsonia.

4. Signposts

Bee flowers often have nectar guides on their petals in the form of spots (foxglove) or lines (pansy) which point the way to the interior of the flower. As well as dots and spots, dashes and lines – signposts that indicate the way to the bee’s pantry – there are markings invisible to the human eye that reflect ultraviolet light and direct bees to the source of pollen or nectar.

The spots on foxglove flowers are nectar guides for the bees. Picture: Lukas Otto

White flowers absorb ultraviolet and appear blue-green to the bee. This is important because bees favour flowers in white, yellow, blue, purple and ultra-violet shades, such as alyssum, borage, catmint, cosmos, daisies, euryops, felicia, blossom trees, gazania, lavender, polygala, poppy, rosemary, salvia, scabious and thyme.

Bees are attracted to wild pear (Dombeya rotundifolia), which flowers from July to September; the nectar-rich yellow-green flowers of buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata); and the inconspicuous greenish flowers of the African dogwood (Rhamnus prinoides).

5. Fat with pollen

African teak (Pterocarpus angolensis), African wattle (Peltophorum africanum), sweet thorn (Acacia karroo), black thorn (Acacia mellifera), false olive (Buddleja saligna) and erythrina are excellent sources of pollen.

DID YOU KNOW? One-third of our global food supply is pollinated by bees. Picture: Peter Webb

Honey highways and corridors

In the Netherlands, one of the first honey highways opened in November 2015. Roadsides, dykes and railway verges are sown with wild flower seed and the honey highway is part of an educational programme at Dutch high schools.

Norway has built bee havens on rooftops and balconies in Oslo, giving bees nectar-rich feeding sources to help offset the stresses of urban life. Other countries have adopted similar practices. Establish a bee-friendly corridor on your verge. Even a window box or pots of flowers will help increase the food supply for bees and other pollinators.

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