Firewalls in bee nests-survival value of propolis walls of wild Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis)

Naturwissenschaften. 2017 Apr;104(3-4):29. doi: 10.1007/s00114-017-1449-5. Epub 2017 Mar 13.


The Cape bee is endemic to the winter rainfall region of South Africa where fires are an integral part of the ecology of the fynbos (heathland) vegetation. Of the 37 wild nests in pristine Peninsula Sandstone Fynbos in the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park that have been analyzed so far, only 22 could be accessed sufficiently to determine the existence of a propolis wall of which 68% had propolis walls which entirely enclosed their openings. The analysis of the 37 wild nests revealed that 78% occurred under boulders or in clefts within rocks, 11% in the ground, 8% in tree cavities, and 3% within shrubs. The analysis of 17 of these nests following a fire within the park revealed that the propolis walls materially protected the nests and retarded the fire with all the colonies surviving. The bees responded to the smoke by imbibing honey and retreating to the furthest recess of their nest cavity. The bees were required to utilize this honey for about 3 weeks after which fire-loving plants appeared and began flowering. Considerable resources were utilized in the construction of the propolis walls, which ranged in thickness from 1.5 to 40 mm (mean 5 mm). Its physical environment determines the nesting behavior of the Cape bee. The prolific use of propolis serves to insulate the nest from extremes of temperature and humidity, restricts entry, camouflages the nest, and acts as an effective fire barrier protecting nests established mostly under rocks in vegetation subjected to periodic fires.

Keywords: Apis mellifera capensis; Bee nest; Firewall; Propolis.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Fires*
  • Nesting Behavior / physiology*
  • Propolis*
  • South Africa
  • Survival
  • Time Factors


  • Propolis