Let’s Talk About Gum Trees and Bees

Beekeeper in fynbosA recent study undertaken by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) revealed that gum trees (Eucalyptus), certain crops, indigenous trees and shrubs, flowering plants in suburban gardens and even roadside wildflowers or weeds are all critically important to South Africa’s indigenous honey bees.


Forage availability and accessibility for honey bees are a large constraint to beekeepers in South Africa, who manage colonies to harvest honey and provide a pollination service to growers of pollination-dependant crops.  A lack of good quality and variety of forage can lead to unhealthy honey bee colonies that are more vulnerable to pests and diseases.  This, in turn, can lead to insufficient pollination of our important agricultural crop flowers, leading to decreased yield or quality of the food crop.

A major factor in the decline of honey bees around the world is a lack of good forage plants that provide the nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein) sources that bees require for their nutritional health.   It is therefore critical to plan and conserve agricultural and peri-urban landscapes to support our honey bees.

Beekeepers in all South African provinces are dependent on gum trees as a forage resource for their honey bees.  Eucalypts provide a reliable pollen source and nectar flow, and can be used almost year-round as there are several species that flower at different times of the year. 

Some Eucalyptus species can invade land and have a negative impact on biodiversity and water resources, or cause erosion and increase fire risk.  However, because gum trees have value (for timber, for bees, for shade, for aesthetics, for protection from wind and dust, etc.), they should only be cleared where they are invading and have a negative impact. 

This is why the 2014 Alien and Invasive Species Regulations (promulgated under the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, No. 10 of 2004) are nuanced for eucalypts.  Landowners should know that not all gum trees need to be removed.  Eucalyptus species within streams (riparian areas), protected areas or ecosystems identified for conservation purposes should be removed.  Six species are listed in the Regulations as “Category 1b” invasive species, which means they must be ‘controlled’ even outside riparian areas.  But even these listed gum species can be demarcated by permit as Category 2 Invasive Species under the Biodiversity Act as bee-forage areas, wind-rows or woodlots.  Several gum species that are important bee forage (e.g. Eucalyptus sideroxylon and E. gomphocephala) are not listed in the Regulations and therefore could be maintained or planted in non-riparian areas. 

Beekeepers are highly dependent on Eucalyptus and the unconsidered removal of Eucalyptus will cause a serious shortage of honey bee forage.  Landowners who have Eucalyptus on their land are therefore encouraged to carefully consider any removals and make sure they are adhering to the Alien and Invasive Species Regulations.

Indigenous plants that stand out as important forage for South African beekeepers include fynbos plant species (e.g. ericas, proteas and mesembs), several species of aloe (including mountain aloe), shrubs like wild asparagus and buchus, and indigenous trees such as Vachellia karroo (sweet thorn) and Ziziphus mucronata (buffalo thorn). Many regional vegetation types (like Karoo, Bushveld and indigenous forest) are also critical.

Crops, indigenous plants and weeds are also critical to South Africa’s honey bees.  All landowners play an important role in providing habitat and forage for our managed and our wild honey bees.  You can help in any of the following ways:

• Allow beekeepers access to utilize the forage resources on your land, and work with the beekeepers to make sure hive sites are secure and inaccessible to vandals.

• Protect your natural vegetation through incorporating pollinator habitat or forage concerns into agricultural best practice, land-clearing authorizations (i.e. do not unnecessarily clear virgin land), Environmental Impact Assessment processes, and landuse planning policies and tools.

• Consider planting indigenous bee-friendly plants when gardening, planting wind-breaks or when rehabilitating after a development (e.g. dam walls, road berms, etc.)  Be sure to plant plants that are appropriate to your specific area. Check with your local nursery for subspecies or varieties that occur locally to avoid invasive problems or hybridisations with veld species in the vicinity.

• Honey bees will visit any flowering crop (especially the very attractive ones like canola, lucerne, sunflowers, citrus) as well as other flowers and weeds. Please take this into account when spraying chemicals – consult the label and adhere to its instructions. Be careful of chemicals when gardening too. • Encourage public land planting programmes (e.g. under power lines, along road verges, or urban greening programmes) to consider bee-friendly plant species first.

• Consider planting complementary crop plants (such as lavender or basil) or fodder crops (like clovers or vetch), or rotate land with legumes crops, as these are all important honey bee forage. 

• Do not unnecessarily spray or remove weeds that are attractive to bees (e.g. wild radish, cosmos, etc.

Fewer honey bees could mean fewer crops, less food and more poverty for humans. We all have a role to play in looking after this vital insect.   Enjoy planting and protecting forage resources for our honey bees!

Find more information on the NEMBA regulations and specific eucalyptus species at www.invasives.org.za

Lists of bee-friendly plants are available at  http://www.sanbi.org/biodiversity-science/state-biodiversity/applied-biodiversity-research/global-pollination-honeybee--1

A booklet to help landowners in South Africa protect or grow forage resources for honey bees is available at http://www.sanbi.org/sites/default/files/documents/documents/gumsbees-web-version-hyperlinks.pdf

For more information, please contact Mbulelo Mswazi on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Authors: Mbulelo Mswazi and Carol Poole, South African National Biodiversity Institute

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