My visit to the African bees

Some may remember that whilst on holiday at my dad's last October, I visited a local beekeeper who took me to see his bees. Work and life has prevented me from relaying that experience, mostly because I wanted to spend some time doing it justice and not just slap words and photos together. So, being a dreary Sunday afternoon with some spare time on my hands, I've taken pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and written my account of that very memorable visit...

Growing up in South Africa I never gave much thought to bees. Like most people, I was aware of their presence, afraid of their sting but loved what they produced. However, since becoming a beekeeper in May 2012, I'm obviously a lot more interested in these little creatures and also fascinated with how beekeeping differs in various areas of the world.

My dad lives in a beautiful part of South Africa known as the 'Sunshine Coast'. Having moved from Johannesburg to this small town of Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape about six years ago, he has come to know a number of the locals including local beekeeper Charles Friderichs and his son Christopher. Having just become a beekeeper myself, I must have come up in conversation and Charles offered to show me his bees when I was next over in early October 2012. Having bought Charles' dark, and delicious 'bush honey' before, I knew this would be a highlight of my visit (after seeing my dad of course).

Charles founded Honey Dawn Bee Farm in 1974, but his interest in beekeeping actually started far earlier than that. Whilst at boarding school in nearby Grahamstown a colony of bees decided to make their home in his locker. Ever since then he has been bitten by the bee bug. “Yes, can you believe it? It's now a passion of mine – I love my beekeeping,” gushes Charles.

His farm has grown over the years and today he runs about 1,300 hives and produces 18 to 20 tonnes of honey a year. However, these hives aren't all in the same location. In fact, there are 60 different locations mostly on farmers' lands with the furthest being 160km away. “I approach the farmers and ask whether they would allow me to keep bees on their property in exchange for some honey. They are more than happy to oblige,” says Charles. “People are becoming more and more aware of bees and the global environment with all these TV programmes that we have now. They know that if you have healthy bees, you have a healthy environment.”

But some farmers do actually approach Charles requesting that his bees pollinate their crops. “We do quite a lot of pollination of avocados – 560 at the moment and in three years that will go up to 900 to 1,000 hives. For each hive we get a certain amount of money from the farmer for two months of pollination. We have to charge otherwise we are the losers because we feed our bees quite heavily and the cost of transport becomes a huge factor too.”

So, on a sunny October morning I drove the short distance to Honey Dawn Bee Farm with my orange bee suit in tow, which I'd managed to squeeze into my suitcase from the UK. Charles scoffed at my marigolds and instead gave me a pair of elbow-length pig skin gloves. Not even my step-mother's motor bike boots would suffice as I was handed a pair of sturdy gum boots (similar to wellies). With Charles warning me that “our African bees are a lot more aggressive than your European ones”, I began to quake in those gum boots. But there was no way I could make an exit now and Charles and I got into his 'bakkie' (a South African term for a small van or pick up truck) and drove to the neighbouring farm where his closest bees are kept.

Driving through the dense bush, I soon came to understand why he calls his award-winning honey 'bush honey'. The natural flora is full of indigenous nectar producing plants. In particular he pointed out a dark green bush called Scutia myrtina, locally known as 'droogie' or Cat-thorn, which flowers for four months in the summer. “This is our biggest honey producer in the area and gives a beautiful dark honey. But it doesn't flower the same every year, some years are fantastic and others not. But with all the rain we've had, this is going to be a good year. If you come here in January, you won't believe it - we just keep taking supers off.”

On the drive we also discussed the differences between UK and African bees. One question I really wanted to ask is what do the bees do during winter with the weather being so mild. “They still work as we get beautiful days in the winter. There is no honey really but the bees can get forage from the aloes and blue gums. The queen will lay if there is food coming in,” explains Charles.

And what about pests and diseases? “Our African bees are quite resilient whereas your European ones seem to be very finicky. For instance, our bees cope with varroa, it's not a problem for us.”

But Charles did remark that African bees tend to swarm a lot and he catches a huge amount of feral colonies each year. This can be down to over crowding and for this reason Charles doesn't put queen excluders in his hives. In fact the first location we were driving towards are hives full of young bees that have only been there for just six months. “I catch a lot of feral colonies in the gum trees near my house in the winter months and bring them here. These bees I haven't seen for six to eight weeks since I fed them last and I want to check that they have decent queens,” says Charles.

As we approached the location I was rather amused to find about 12 hives within a wire fence enclosure. But as Charles explains, this is what they have to do to prevent the farmer's cattle from pushing the hives over. At the locations further inland where baboons are a big problem the cages, as he calls them, has wire fencing that extends over the roof.

As soon as we got out the bakkie, the smoker was lit with grass being used as the fuel. With African bees known for being on the aggressive side, smoking is very important. “Always make sure you have a very good smoker to subdue the bees a bit,” he says.

Of course the theory behind smoking the bees is to initiate a feeding response in anticipation of possible hive abandonment due to fire. So, the bees are more interested in filling their bellies than with the beekeeper fiddling in their home. “You mustn't be scared to give them a good smoke because then they get the message. Especially our African bees – you can't just give them a little whiff.”

Although the bees did seem buzzier than UK bees with far more flying around in the air, I wouldn't say that they were necessarily more aggressive – I've seen worse from some UK colonies. “These bees aren't aggressive – it's the way you work with them,” says Charles. “When you open the hive, give them a little puff of smoke so they know you are there. Also, don't have jerky movements.”

To be honest, I've never seen a beekeeper quite like Charles. He was calm and gentle but so thorough and quick - speed beekeeping at its best. He also managed to spot the queen straightaway, which they don't mark as the queens are replaced so often. We saw loads of eggs, good brood patterns and lots of young bees, which Charles says means that the queen is laying well.

I had a go myself – levering the frames and checking them. I was amazed at how bright the pollen is. These bees were hard at work and it's only the beginning of Spring. “When the flow comes, we can get three supers on top of the brood box,” says Charles.

One thing I did notice is that they don't use a full sheet of wax foundation in each frame. Instead, just a strip is placed at the top and the bees then draw this out and build comb underneath.

Most of the hives also contained frame feeders, which can take four litres of sugar syrup. Being rough on the inside means that the bees can grip onto it with their feet and walk down towards the syrup.

With the inspection over, Charles's assistant sprayed weedicide around the hives, which he carried like a back pack. This doesn't harm the bees but ensures that the tall grass is kept at bay so that the hive entrances are not blocked.

We then jumped back into the bakkie and made our way to the second location, which was a little drive away and again through some dense bush. We had to shoo some cows away who were lying in the hot sandy road and also passed a few ostriches as well as whatever else was lurking in the bush – warthog mostly. Charles also pointed out another tree that the bees forage from that has enormous thorns. He told me the Xhosa name for this tree which directly translates as 'the thorn that goes through your foot'. Ouch.

Although it is a beautiful 20 minute drive from his home, with 60 locations I was curious to know how often he inspects his hives. “It depends. In the summer it is once every four weeks, basically we leave them to get on with it. But what we do check for is whether they have enough space otherwise they swarm.”

But as Charles explains, there is an advantage to travelling so far to see his bees. “I have bees right in the middle of the Shamwari Game Reserve. It's so beautiful there. I stay over and go on a game drive every time I'm over. Once we saw a lion kill not too far away from the hives.”

The second location is in deeper bush and these bees are more established colonies.

We spotted three African queens in these hives. You can see one here. The younger the queen, the lighter she is.

We then drove back to his farm where the 'Honey House' is located. It's here where all his multi-flora honey is extracted and bottled. I had a brief walk round and when we came to a drum of honey, Charles told me to "have a dip". He meant with my finger but I would have gladly got in, it was so delicious.

We met his son Christopher who was overseeing the build of a new bottling room. Christopher has been working in partnership with Charles since 2007 and has plans for expansion as he'd like them to have 3,000 hives in the coming years. That would be a lot of honey and mead, which Christopher has been experimenting with. I tasted some and it's more like a rich liqueur – a viable sideline business I reckon.

As I was getting in the car to leave, Charles told me not to stop at one hive: “It's the most fascinating hobby you'll ever have.” I don't doubt it.

What a lovely father and son team. I'm hoping to go back and see them when I visit my dad at Easter.


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