Derivation of scientific name

Carolus Linneaus named the honeybee in 1758. Apis is the Latin word for “bee” and mellifera is from the Latin word for “honey” (melli), and for “bearer” (ferre). The subspecies name (capensis) of course refers to the distribution.

Common names: Kaapse bye (Afrikaans); Inyosi (isiXhosa), nyoxi (Xitsonga)

The Cape honeybee is the southern South African subspecies of the Western honeybee. The Cape honeybee plays an important role in human lives as it is managed by beekeepers to allow for honey harvesting and to provide a pollination service to farmers of pollinator-dependent crops. Humans have been keeping honeybees for thousands of years, yet we are continuously learning about them. Recent reports of massive honeybee losses across the world have helped encourage public interest in the honeybee and the resources the honeybee needs for survival.

Description/How to recognise a Cape Honeybee

While still having the characteristic honeybee striped abdomen, the Cape honeybee is darker in colour compared to other honeybees. Bees have five eyes (two compound eyes and three single lens eyes) and a worker bee’s main eyes have nearly 7 000 lenses. An electrostatic charge on the bee’s hairs attracts pollen and the leg brushes then scrape the pollen from front to back, where it collects in the pollen basket – a flat and widen area on the rear pair of legs; the proboscis (long tongue) is an airtight, straw-like tube that sucks up nectar and also works in reverse to feed offspring from the honey stomach.

The queen bee lays an egg in each cell in the comb in the hive. The eggs hatch into small larvae, which are grub-like, and which are fed and cared for by “nurse worker bees”. After about a week the nurse bees close up the cells and the larvae become pupae, which show some of the features of adult bees. After about another week the pupae become adult bees.

Getting around

A honeybee has two sets of wings used for flight. The wing hooks enable the bee to attach one of each set of wings together during flight for maximum efficiency.

Honeybees communicate by performing a series of dance moves. Through the number of turns, duration of the dance and the moves themselves, they can communicate the distance of the food and the direction of the food in relation to the sun.

The Cape honeybee is only found in the Western Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape (effectively in the Fynbos biome), while the African honeybee (Apis mellifera scutellata) subspecies is native to central and most of southern Africa. Because it is rich in plant biodiversity, the fynbos region is able to support a remarkable diversity of animal life, and many specialist endemic species. Beekeepers in the Western Cape use fynbos as an important forage resource for their managed bees at certain times of the year.

The Cape honeybee occurs in the natural veld of the Western and Eastern Cape, but is also common in urban gardens, in peri-urban areas and on crop land.  Some crops like canola or lucerne are important forage resources for managed honeybee colonies and beekeepers often trap wild swarms in these regions. Managed honeybees often abscond from hives to become wild again, and therefore the wild and managed populations are really just one population.

A honeybee forages on nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein) of flowering plants, and they require a large diversity of pollen and nectar from different plants sources to be healthy. While some beekeepers may supplement a colony’s food with sugary water, this is not a long-term or healthy option.

The collecting bees suck nectar from plants, and store this in a type of second stomach. When they return to the hive worker bees remove the nectar from them and digest it for about 30 minutes. This breaks down the complex sugars in the nectar. The raw honey is then spread out in empty cells in the comb where it is fanned by the bees wings so that it loses water. Once the honey is much drier, the workers cap the cell with wax, and the honey is stored for later use as food.

Sex and life cycles

The honeybee lifecycle follows this pattern: egg – larva – pupa – adult bee. Honeybee colonies comprise a single mated queen and 10 000-50 000 of her worker daughters. The queen can choose the sex of her offspring because of haplodiploidy. Eggs that are fertilised produce diploid female offspring (workers & queens). Unfertilised eggs develop as haploid males (drones). In order to mate, a queen flies with drone aggregations on 1-4 successive afternoons, mating with 6-10 males on each flight. The average lifespan of a queen is three to four years; drones usually die upon mating or are expelled from the hive before the winter; and workers may live for a few weeks in the summer and several months in areas with an extended winter.

The Cape honeybee is unique among honeybee subspecies because the workers can lay diploid female eggs, while workers of other subspecies can only lay haploid male eggs. This ability allows the Cape honeybee to become a social parasite in the African honeybee (A. m. scutellata) colonies, causing them to dwindle and often die. This has happened in parts of South Africa where the Cape honeybee was introduced to areas in the north of the country.

The big picture

Friends and foes

The honeybee is a social insect and is a primary consumer, feeding on pollen and nectar of flowering plants, while at the same time providing the essential service of transferring pollen from one flower to another – thereby facilitating pollination and the reproduction of flowering plants. Honeybee colonies around the world are experiencing problems with the Varroa mite pest and diseases like American Foulbrood. Various invertebrates, birds and mammals prey on honeybees or raid their hives for the brood and honey.

Smart strategies

Although it was believed that bees hibernate in winter, the colony actually creates a winter ecosystem inside the hive and lives off honey with the bees maintaining warmth by working their wings.

Poorer world without me

The Cape honeybee is an important pollinator of flowering plants, including many Fynbos species. Honeybees are used to pollinate about 50 crops across South Africa, including the deciduous fruit and vegetable seed found in the Cape region. Imagine your world without all the fruits and vegetables we rely on for a healthy diet!

People & I

In the Xhosa culture, when there is a swarm of bees in the house they believe it is the ancestors. In order to appease the ancestors and get rid of the bees, one has to make umqombothi (a beer made from maize, maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast and water) and communicate with the bee swarm.

Conservation status and what the future holds

While the Cape honeybee is officially classified as not threatened, they are experiencing threats, including diminishing forage resources, pests and diseases, as well as problems arising from misuse of pesticides and insecticides in the environment. Much research and action is needed to mitigate these threats and SANBI is undertaking an important project researching the honeybees’ forage resource requirements. South Africa also has a unique problem in that the Cape honeybee can become a social parasite if introduced in the other subspecies (A. m. scutellata) range. To remedy this, a dividing line has been drawn to separate the area in which A. m. scutellata and A. m. capensis can be used for beekeeping activities and no bees may be transported across the demarcation line.


Twenty-eight subspecies of Apis mellifera (the Western honeybee) occur across Asia, Europe and Africa, but only two are found in South Africa: A. m. capensis and A. m. scutellata. The oldest known honeybee specimen dates back 100 million years.

Scientific and classification

Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Apidae
Genus: Apis
Species: Mellifera
Subspecies: Apis mellifera capensis (Eschscholtz, 1822)

References and further reading

  • Allsopp MH, 2004. Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) and Varroa destructor – (Anderson & Trueman) threats to honeybee and beekeeping in Africa. International Journal of Tropical Insect Science, 24 (1), pp73-77. Published online by Cambridge University Press 28 February 2007.
  • Hepburn HR, Radloff SE, 1998. Honeybees of Africa, Springer – Verlag, Berlin, Germany. 370pp.
  • Johannsmeier MF.2001. Beekeeping in South Africa. Plant Protection Handbook No.14. Agricultural Research Council, Pretoria, South Africa. 288pp.
  • The South African Biodiversity Act (10/2004; Government Gazette 8 February 2008).
  • Times magazine, August 19, 2013. A World without Bees: The price we’ll pay if we don’t figure out what’s killing the honeybee.

Author: Mbulelo Mswazi

Biodiversity Research Information & Monitoring
November 2013

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