Do bees pollinate nocturnal baobab flowers?

Pabalelo Phori (MSc candidate) investigates the role of bees and other insects visiting baobab flowers.

The buzzing of bees around baobab flowers in the early morning is a common sight and although bees are an important pollinator of many species, do they actually play a role in pollinating baobab flowers?  This is the important question that Pabalelo will be investigating at her study site in Pafuri, South Africa.

Pabalelo was born and grew up in Burgersfort, a town just east of Polokwane in Limpopo Province.  After school she was offered the opportunity to do a BSc at the University of Venda, where under the guidance of Prof Stefan Foord became fascinated by insects and their role in the environment and their importance in agricultural systems.  For her honors project she investigated the effectiveness of black soldier fly frass as a biocide in vegetable production.  When the chance to get out of the lab (and away from the smelly flies) and into the field to study insects and baobabs, she jumped at the opportunity.

Baobabs are an important resource and income to thousands of rural Africans who depend on a good harvest of fruit every year.  Thus, studing the pollination of the flowers is a critical in understanding the drivers of a fast growing million-dollar industry.

Pabalelo will be heading out into the field in November (2023) to spend the few brief weeks that baobabs are in flower to observe and collect data on bee activity.  Her schedule will require her to work deep into the night and to be out under the baobabs before sunrise.

Every year baobabs produce large, white, pendulous flowers that hang from long stalks. Flowers are nocturnal and open in the early evening and stay open through the night to be pollinated by night flying animals.  While the flowers are open, they emit a fragrance and produce nectar which attracts a diverse array of animals such as fruits bats, bushbabies, hawkmoths and in the early morning honeybees.

Baobabs are known to be pollinated by a variety of species of fruit bats, such as the huge straw-coloured flying fox and the smaller epauletted fruit bats which are commonly found in East and West Africa.  In South Africa night-flying hawkmoths visit and pollinate baobab flowers.  But to date there has been no study on the role of day-flying insects in the pollination of baobab flowers.

The aim of Pabalelo’s study is to quantify and describe which day-flying insects visit baobab flowers and at what time of the morning they do this.  She will also be catching insects to see if they are carrying pollen and to evaluate if their visits make a difference to fruit production.

Pabalelo registered as an MSc student with the University of Venda.  Her study was initiated by the Baobab Foundation and who together with the NRF (National Research Fund) and the SARChi Research Chair in Biodiversity Value and Change in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve support and supervise her work.

Dr Sarah Venter