for National Geographic News
It may be widely known as the "killer bee," but to some of South Africa's many poor people, the African bee is proving a life-saver.
With the country's government under heavy pressure to reduce unemployment levels of more than 30 percent, beekeeping is being touted as a way of helping many families earn a living.
And if a university-driven experiment works out, domestic sales and exports of an alcoholic beverage made from honey could become a lucrative business for some communities.
A project called Beekeeping for Poverty Relief is one of a number of "green" initiatives that delegates from around the world learned about at the World Summit on Sustainable Development that took place in Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4.
The potential social and economic benefits of beekeeping are tied to the critical role that bees play in the pollination of crops and other plants in nature.
Beekeeping in South Africa was largely introduced from Europe. Yet the practice did not become an integral part of traditional farming in South Africa as it has in some other African countries, where families commonly have beehives for domestic use, said Elize Lundall-Magnuson, an entomologist who manages the Beekeeping for Poverty Relief program, which is sponsored by the South African Agricultural Research Council.
South Africa's indigenous groups have generally obtained honey by hunting for the nests of bees in the wild.
"To this day, many people remain honey hunters who often destroy the hives. With this project people are trained to correctly extract the honey and turn it into a viable project by becoming beekeepers," said Lundall-Magnuson.
She is not clear why beekeeping trends are so different in South Africa. She thinks it might be related to the kind of flora that's predominant in the country.
Beekeeping, she notes, is more customary in countries closer to the Equator, where the types of plants that proliferate in forests and other areas of vegetation produce far more nectar.
The more customary practice of honey hunting among South Africa's indigenous groups might be explained in part by the relative scarcity of bees in the country's vast unforested stretches of land.
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