Ujubee cyber hive to protect wild bees

Jenny Cullinan of Ujubee.

The fragile connection between fynbos, our floral heritage and the fascinating role of the not-so-humble Cape honey bee is being brought into focus by Ujubee.

Ujubee is run by Jenny Cullinan and Karin Steenberg and is a dedicated research project aimed at the conservation of our wild bees.

While bees are a keystone species, and humans are definitively not, the way humans treat bees is what is leading to their collapse: and Ujubee wants to show people another way, a bee-centric as opposed to human centric approach. “There is much mis-information about bees and what they need – and so from a place of misinformation many people are poisoning bees and keeping them in structures and places that are not conducive to their optimal health,” she said. “Until we know better, we can’t do better,” she said.

Ujubee is a website dedicated to the beauty of the bee’s world. The site is a natural hive of information and scientifically collected data, and is unique in the world because it is based on data captured from the behaviour of wild bees.

Only Africa, Asia and Europe still have wild bees- in places like Germany 99.9% of the bee population is hived, medicated and controlled.

“We are incredibly lucky as 90% of our bees are wild – and our biome depends on this,” Jenny said.

Why? Because the future of our floral heritage rests on these tiny winged pollinators. “There are six floral kingdoms on earth. The Cape fynbos is the smallest, but the richest floral kingdom in the world. This floral kingdom is kept alive by its pollinators,” she said.

Disturbingly, this very same area is already considered a hotspot, and to qualify to become a hotspot, 70% of the area has been lost – to development and other reasons. The Apis mellifera capensis (Cape honeybee) pollinates more than 85% of the fynbos flowers, which are part of the smallest but richest and most threatened in the world. “Without these bees we would lose this floral kingdom. Bees keep it together. They ensure the bio-diversity of the world around us. We have to understand how these bees have adapted to this amazing floral kingdom – and what we can do to keep them safe,” she said. Bees have been here for 18 million years, Jenny said.

They have a fair amount to teach us; if we will take the time to look. Not listen, because bees are deaf and their communication is all visual and chemical. Luckily for the rest of us, whose daily lives usually separate us from our natural environment, Karen and Jenny are looking; and recording all they are seeing. Their documentation is precise and in painstaking detail, and Jenny refers to it as a privilege to observe these creatures, who are responsible for pollinating 80% of our food produce.

She points out that bees are indicator species too – they pollinate and eat the same food we do, and they are dying. They are dying from farming practices which have gone industrial and chemical and Jenny is concerned that we are not paying close enough attention to their messages of eating nutrition-deprived food grown in contaminated or overly fertilised soils. “Bees worldwide are dying at the moment and if Apis melifera capensis were to die; we would lose this race of bee. Researching them is of great value to ensuring the longevity of our natural world,” Jenny said.

Ujubee has been invited to the Netherlands to take part in a global conference, the very first Wild Bee Conference in Amsterdam, where their research and experience in the field -gleaned on the slopes of Table Mountain National Park – can teach the world at large new information about wild bees and what they need, and do, naturally.

One aim of the conference is to lobby for the rights of bees to be free and wild, in the hopes that this one seemingly simple aspect will have a knock-on effect on our choices and way of life, globally; even legally.

Jenny says she comes from a family of artists and environmental lawyers and that art school taught her to see more clearly, and her family’s legal background has inspired the call for the rights of bees.

She’s seeing the bigger picture, it’s not just bees that she is trying to help: it’s all of us. “You have to experience nature regularly and learn its patterns before it reveals the new to you. You have to know commonplace before you see the extraordinary,” she said.

Another aim for Ujubee is to see first-hand how important these bees are to the Table Mountain National Park Cape of Good Hope Section. Because they are self-funded, and the invite to the Netherlands is for accommodation only, the women are fund-raising now to ensure their tickets. “As we move into our fourth year of research we would love support from all who love bees and feel that wild bees have the right to live in wild spaces, in their natural habitats and without the interference from people wanting to ‘commodotise’ them for some personal or commercial gain,” she said. They hope to establish sanctuaries protecting wild bees (honeybees, solitary and sub-social bees) of which – Jenny said – there are thousands in their unique biomes throughout South Africa; thus safe-guarding their diversity and gene-pool for the future.

Jenny says she has been building a log hive on Koos Burger’s Labyrinth and says the labyrinth is a unique and powerful way to tell the rich and diverse story of the area’s flowers and fynbos.. and that more storytellers like Koos are needed.

For Ujubee, the capture of the bees and their fellow pollinators on camera is part of the telling of the characters that live out in the fields.

As part of their fund-raising venture, Jenny and Karen are going to be sharing some of their groundbreaking observations at Cape Point Nature Reserve, looking at the recent fires and the impact these have on the Cape honeybee.

This will be at the first Wild Bee Conference in Amsterdam, hosted by the Natural Beekeeping Trust UK, from August 31 to September 2, next year. Join them at Simon’s Town Museum, tonight, Thursday November 30, at 5.30pm for 6pm.

Entry costs R50 or a larger donation. For more information on Ujubee, visit: http://ujubee.com