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Introduction to South African bees

Published on May 19th 2020

by nicole_greeff. All rights reserved

A close up of a flower
Our beautiful country boasts with an incredible diversity of indigenous bee species. Perhaps you are more familiar with our two honeybees, but did you know there are approximately 1400 bee species in southern Africa? They range from social bees that live in colonies to solitary bees that make their nests in the ground, resin or wood tunnels, and even parasitic bees that lay their eggs in other bees’ nests.
This wonderfully diverse group of insects are to be admired, protected and given an environment in which they are able to thrive. For us gardeners, to be able to protect and preserve our beautiful wildlife, we first need to get to know them. As the saying goes ‘unknown, unloved’, so what better time than now to get acquainted with these incredible creatures.
A close up of a flower
In the first instalment of our Bee Series, we want to introduce you to the different bee types that occur in South Africa.

Types of bees

Bees are divided into 10 families, of which 6 occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Bees can also be broadly grouped into 6 categories. See if you can spot any of these types in your garden.
1 | Social bees
Social bees live in hives and usually nest above ground, often inside hollow trees. Hives are ruled by a single queen who takes care of all the egg-laying. The worker bees (females) are daughters of the queen and they perform all housekeeping duties within the hive, and forage for pollen and nectar. (Read more here about the busy worker bee).
In South Africa we have two subspecies (races) of honeybees:
  • The African honeybee (Apis mellifera scutellata) is distributed in the summer rainfall region. It has been described as more aggressive than the docile Cape honeybee and has more yellow colourations on its abdomen compared to the Cape honeybee.
A close up image of the african honey bee on a green leaf Apis mellifera scutellata

East African Lowland Honey Bee

Apis mellifera ssp. scutellata

  • The Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) is mainly confined to the winter rainfall region and have a very strong association with the Fynbos biome. Also called the ‘black bee’ due to its more predominantly black colouration compared to the African honeybee.
A piece of cake
A close up of a piece of broccoli
2 | Dauber bees
These bees make their nests out of mud or resin.
3 | Leafcutter bees
These bees generally nest in tunnels in wood and line their nests with small pieces of leaf material, chewed leaf material, resin or mud, depending on the species.
4 | Carpenter bees
Carpenter bees bore their own tunnels in wood.
5 | Cuckoo bees
Cuckoo bees do not construct nests and, like the Cuckoo bird, lay their eggs in other bees’ nests. This is called cleptoparasitism. The cuckoo bee eggs hatch before the host bee’s eggs and when the larvae emerge, they devour the host eggs and larvae and consume the honey and pollen the host mother has left for her own young to eat. Sneaky, but brilliant.


While standing watching the many bees enjoying my lavender flowers this morning I spotted this black & white bee which, at certain angles, looked pale turquoise! I decided to Google ‘bee types in SA’ & found Solitary Bees, some of which, like my little visitor, are also called Cuckoo Bees as they parasitise the nests of other Solitary bee species, laying their eggs in the cells of the other bees. Their eggs hatch faster & the Cuckoo Bee infant then eats the young & the pollen etc., laid in for it! 🐝🐝🐝🐝Who knew! They say we should learn at least one new fact each day...well, that’s mine sorted for today! I’ll have to look for something else tomorrow! 😜. My pics aren’t quite sharp! Sorry! But this little cuckoo moves mighty fast & doesn’t stay in one place for long, so aiming & focusing my cellphone can be difficult!🤨Once again my Neighbours must have wondered what on earth the old duck next door was doing, cavorting round the lavender bush, bent double!😂🤣 #lockdown #gardengratitude #localislekker #gardenbliss

6 | Miner bees
Miner bees bore their own tunnels in the ground to nest in soil.

Bee families in southern Africa

Plasterer bees (Colletidae) | Bees within this family are collectively known as ‘cellophane’ bees - referring to the transparent secretion they use to line brood cell walls. These bees nest in hollow twigs or tunnels in the ground and collect pollen.
Mining bees (Andrenidae) | Bees within this family nests in burrows in the ground. Females dig a hole of a few centimetres deep in sandy soil, and then digs sideways and create a chamber at the end. Each chamber is then filled with a ball of nectar and pollen, an egg is laid on top of the ball and the female seals the chamber. The emerging larva will consume the nutritious ball until pupating.
Sweat bees (Halictidae) | Bees within this family display a diverse spectrum of social behaviour and can range from strictly solitary to eusociality, and intermediate forms (communal and semi-social).
Oil-collecting bees (Melittidae) | These bees are small and mostly solitary, ground-nesting bees. A majority of species in this family are specialist pollinators, showing a strong preference for a handful of genera or a family of flowering plants. Some are oil-collecting bees and collect floral oils using specialised plumes of hair on their elongated legs.
Leaf-cutting bees (Megachilidae) | These bees are brown or black and quite stout in their build. One of the distinguishing features of this family is that the non-cleptoparasitic female bees carry pollen on the abdomen instead of on the hind legs. A few bees within this family are ‘cuckoo’ bees.
Apidae | This family includes the honeybee and also some of the socialized bees. The well-known Carpenter bee (Xylocopa caffra), a large, robust bee, is also found within this family.

To learn more about our bees, explore the bee profiles in the Knowledgebase collection below:

Bees in your garden

There are many steps we as gardeners can take to create environments that are more accommodating to bees. By planting a diversity of flowering plants, including native plants, we can ensure that all bees, social and solitary, have an opportunity to forage, nest and breed successfully in our gardens. You can also consider leaving some parts of your garden to grow naturally to create nesting sites for bees that make their home in the soil or in wood.
A close up of a plant

Here are a few bee species gardeners have spotted in their gardens:

Share your images and videos of bees you can spot in your garden and use the hashtag #PolliNationSA

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