003 / Jenny Cullinan



Interview with Jenny Cullinan who lives in the Cape in South Africa, the richest and most diverse floral kingdom in the world.  Six years ago, she and her partner, Karin Sternberg gave up their jobs and started UJUBEE, their wild bee research team.

Terry Oxford:  Welcome to Pollinators and Power.  I'm Terry Oxford and I'm a pollinator advocate in San Francisco, California.  Today, I'm interviewing Jenny Cullinan who lives in the Cape in South Africa, the richest and most diverse floral kingdom in the world.  Six years ago, she and her partner, Karin Sternberg gave up their jobs and started UJUBEE, their wild bee research team.  Their research is primarily based in Table Mountain National Park, a World Heritage site and various other biomes.  The research is self-funded and is totally focused on the ecology of wild bees.  

It’s a long and thoughtful study of the bee’s home, behavior incorporating all the living world around them and the consequences of our actions in it.  Jenny is also an artist using her art to raise awareness about bees and native pollinators. I met Jenny and Karin in The Netherlands and found in them kindred activist spirits who recognize the importance of native pollinators over the industrial beekeeping system.  

Terry Oxford:  Hi Jenny, thank you so much for joining me today.  Why don’t you just launch in and just tell us what you've been working on, what your passion is and what your deal is about pollinators and bees, native bees in South Africa? 

Jenny Cullinan:  Hello, Terry. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity and lovely to be speaking to you.  What I’ve been doing for the past six years is studying bees in the wild in South Africa. So, working in a pristine World Heritage site and now we’ve extended our research sites to a whole lot of other biomes within the Western Cape region of South Africa.  It's the smallest, most diverse and richest floral kingdom in the world.  

And it’s a wonderful place to work and it has a unique and indigenous honeybee Apis Mellifera Linnaeus and a whole lot of solitary bees.  We have a very, very broad base of solitary bees. We study the ecology of bees and how bees lived with one another and with the environment and how everything inter-reacts with one another and is interconnected.  It's a wonderful place to work.

Terry Oxford:  That’s great. I've seen some of the pictures (of wild pollinators) and I'm hoping to be able to post some of those.  They’re the most extraordinary insects I've ever seen.  

Jenny Cullinan:  They are beautiful photographs and the photographs that I sent you are just a glimpse into our world.  Of course, we have so many different kinds of flowers. So, we have an extraordinary amount of specialist pollinators for them!  And so, the evolution of flowers and plants I mean, flowers and bees is quite an extraordinary relationship to be studying.

Terry Oxford:  And then you're also an artist.  I actually bought one of your pieces when I met you in The Netherlands and I love it.  It's so simple and gorgeous, just beautiful, really a lovely rendition of a native bee.  I don't know which one it is but it's cute and fuzzy.  

Jenny Cullinan:  Thank you, Terry.  Yes, I’m an artist.  So, what's really useful is I’ve been trained to look so and I use those skills everyday whilst researching bees.  

Terry Oxford:  I love that, I love that.  You know what I found that sometimes I'll be looking at a tree because that's what my bees forage on here in the city and I won't see anything for a full minute.  And then I always remember ah, just breathe, relax your gaze, just look. And then all of a sudden I’ll see it's just hugely alive with all sorts of different bees and pollinators.  So it’s funny how you say you've been trained to look, I love that.

Jenny Cullinan:  It’s interesting what you say because when we first started researching the honeybees in particular and we thought we knew where they would choose to live.  So we thought ah, there is an interesting cavity in those rocks over there and we would go across and have a look and there would be no bees. And so we really thought that we knew where they would choose to live and we had to give up all of that supposed knowledge that we had and really follow them.  So we had to train ourselves how to see bees flying and then we’d have to follow them back to their nest sites.  

And we had to unlearn everything we knew about bees to come to them and in a clear way and to be able to really understand them.  So it’s been an incredibly interesting journey thinking that one knows something and imposing your understanding of something onto the natural world and there it's completely wrong.  So we had to undo all sorts of learning to and have a glimpse into their world.  

Terry Oxford:  So what is your background? Where did you research before you actually started to research? Where did you go to school? 

Jenny Cullinan:  My background is art.  And so we have – there are two of us, Karin Sternberg and myself that formed UJUBEE and we’ve been trained by a retired entomologist who has trained us how to collect data and how to put it all together.  And we have a special permit we work with the South African National Parks and Scientific Bureau. And this allows us to have a particular permit which allows us to go anywhere in the world heritage site which is our primary research site, Table Mountain National Park for the past six years.  And we have been researching in this way.  

So we’ve learnt a huge amount in terms of how to collect data, how to put it all together.  And of course, we brought our own dimension to the scientific world and that is for me that would be storytelling.  I’m an artist and the way that I see things and the way that I capture information through film and through photography and to be able to speak about it in the fluent manner that is accessible to most people allows us to tell the bee conservation story to a broader audience.  So normally scientific information is captured and kept very much to the scientific community.  

We've been able to negotiate with them the Scientific Bureau, the South African National Parks to actually have a Facebook page and to engage more openly and broadly with the community, which has been incredibly positive because it tells the true story of wild bees.

Terry Oxford:  That’s interesting too because when I met you in The Netherlands, I was struck by your activism and how powerful that you are as a speaker and just as an individual.  And I know it's not about you, it's about the bees, but you are a great – you’re a strong messenger and a good carrier of the message that biodiversity is really the only message that counts right now.  And I remember we were discussing it. We were at a beekeeping conference, we were like you and I were both thinking and saying it's not about honeybees anymore, it's about biodiversity.  

Honeybees can survive anywhere because they’re brought in a box.  But biodiversity and all the different species that need to exist in a healthy environment, that's the true message right now.  And I look at you and I think you’re fortunate to be able to be in that kind of a space and just working with these species that need so much of our help and our protection.  So let me ask you, how close is your preserve to industrial agriculture? 

Jenny Cullinan:  Well, we have many regions in which we’re working.  And so the primary reserve that's at Table Mountain National Park and Cape Point’s section of it is on a peninsula.  So it's right on the edge of [Indiscernible] the ocean around the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds it. And there are some farms but they’re small-scale, so not industrial.  There was a large ostrich farm but it doesn't have any impact on the reserve. There are beekeepers on the border of the reserve and so that does have an impact on the wild colonies in the reserve.  So that has to be looked at very carefully in the future.  

But in terms of other reserves that we’re working in currently in a semi desert region of South Africa called the [Indiscernible].  And the world heritage sites reserves are completely surrounded by agriculture and not necessarily intensive agriculture on all the border sites but certainly there is a lot of intensive agriculture here too.  So we’re currently able to move with that in seeing how we can assist with kind of like a buffer zone for the world heritage sites so that we don't have wildlife in small ghettos.  

Terry Oxford:  That’s a great way to put it, putting the wildlife in the ghettos and the honeybees get the prime real estate.  And that's what's happening here in California. It's dismaying to me and you actually alerted this to me and then I looked into it and found oh my God, it's been happening here for a long time.  So beekeepers will park their beehives with millions and millions and millions of honeybees nest to a native area.  

And the reason that this is wrong is because you know, I think that beekeepers should take responsibility for their animals and make sure that there is good forage for them instead of just industrial monoculture, which is chemically infused and basically a death zone.  So I just wish that the beekeepers would take care of their animals in a different way, as opposed to depleting someone else's resources.  

Jenny Cullinan:  I totally agree with you Terry that if you have any animal in your care you should feed it and you shouldn't expect anybody else to feed it.  And this for me is a huge concern. We have of course indigenous honeybees. So our honeybees live a very, very much when they’re in a natural environment in harmony with all the other pollinators.  And that’s because nature has a particular way of making sure that there isn’t a proliferation of honeybees in the wild and that’s through fire.  

And our regions are fire prone and the ecology has fire that runs through it say every 20 years, 15, 20 years and that limits the nest sites for the honeybees.  So we have about one colony per square kilometer and that means that’s a wonderful balance. When you bring 25 hives and you put it on to the border of a reserve you’ve just bought in a million pollinators that need to feed.  And so we will have overgrazing and we know what happens when there is overgrazing, there is not enough food for others.  

And so that's not on, if you are going to keep an animal in a confined manner under your care, you need to be able to feed it and not expect any wild space to feed it because that wild space has already got other creatures living there.  So that's the big question that needs to be asked of the beekeeping associations. If you’re going to breed honeybees, make sure that you have enough forage for each hive and that you can take care of your own animals and not feed them number one, sugar water or anything synthetic.  You should be feeding them high quality food.  

Terry Oxford:  Right, right. And beekeepers will do that.  They’ll feed their bees sugar water or just plain white sugar.  They just like sugar water and sugar is just not food for anything at all.  And so I just think that that's an easy way out. And the bottom line is this is history.  The way that beekeepers are keeping their bees and what is now happening in South Africa to the migratory beekeeping system growing, the whole history of that is wrong.  It shouldn't be this way, we shouldn't have denuded and chemically dead environments that nothing can survive. You know, instead, they're just doing the easy thing in parking their hives on somebody else's land and stealing from the natives.  

Jenny Cullinan:  I totally agree with you Terry that's the way that we produce food is fundamentally wrong.  Who on earth came up with the idea that we should grow food with poison. I don’t want to eat food that is poisonous and I don't want any wildlife exposed to poison and so we have a really, really important fight at the moment, which is to stop that.  It’s crucial that all of us speak up against that because that toxicity, those poisons are going into groundwater, going into the ocean poisoning fish. It's not just the insects that are dying. Wait until we really take a good look at the ocean as well.  

Everything is dying.  It's not a sustainable thing to be doing and it's a crazy, crazy, crazy idea and I don't want to eat poisonous food.  And so we shouldn't impose poison on any other species whether it be plant or animal, insect or fish, it's wrong. It just is wrong.  So we now have to find our way back to what was conventional farming. Conventional farming was in the old days you farmed with your native species, you farmed and you didn’t use chemicals that terminology has changed to organic or organic has been hijacked and actually we should just claim back that actually the original way of farming, conventional farming had no poison.

Terry Oxford:  Yeah and I think it's true.  You know, I'm always telling people what's on your plate matters that if you are not eating chemical free food, then you've killed something up orchard or downstream, and it really does matter.  And you know, and it's funny what you said really triggered something about our food system and about it being ethical. People like to trust. We just like to turn off our brains at some point and just trust it's easier for us.  Otherwise we kind of get sick, we get too much cortisol and stress running through our bodies.  

So we like to trust.  And the sad message is, is that you can't trust your food because a lot of the stuff that's been grown and marketed through conventional farming is not, it's not subsistence crops, it’s specialty crops or cash crops, easy stuff for them to ship all around the world.  So instead of creating farming that is sustainable locally and able to be shipped locally, these companies have specialized in just a few crops that do the most damage. So my favorite bad boys are citrus and almonds.  

Almonds are one of the most depleting crops as are citrus.  And because they're grown in such huge monoculture operations they require chemicals that then deplete the soil, depletes all the native pollinators, requires migratory beekeepers to come in.  And then those beekeepers have to park their beehives next to pristine land because they know bees need organic food. So they're always searching for organic because the monoculture has taken up and taken up a lot of land and agricultural land.  And so these specialty cash crops they are not subsistence, you don't need an almond to survive.  

And so you know, they're just depleting degenerative crops.  They're not regenerative in anyway. And I hope that South Africa is looking at the mistakes of the West in the northern hemisphere and what we've done wrong in our agricultural practices.  And I hope that that there is voices there that are joining yours to keep out monoculture crops and specialty cash crops. Is that happening or is Bayer and the beekeepers are they joining forces? 

Jenny Cullinan:  Unfortunately it looks like South Africa.  Well, South Africa has massive export markets with all kinds of cash crops as you call them.  It’s unfortunate that South Africa doesn't look to feed her own people before she exports. So we have huge industrial farms in South Africa.  And of course, it is monoculture and of course we have a huge citrus industry here. And so many, many singular mono cropped environments, which is unhealthy for pollinators.  

And yeah, unfortunately the Bee Associations of South Africa have signed the Bayer pollination charter and which means that they collude with the toxic chemical system and that is a fundamental error.  And once again, one has to say to beekeepers that are colluding with that system that really you’re not looking after your animals. If you’re going to allow them to be exposed to plants that are really filled with poison, you’re going to have a very sick colony at some points and that’s going to be weakened and it’s going to be susceptible to different diseases.  And so the whole cycle is fundamentally wrong.  

And yet I'm working in an area at the moment, which is an incredibly pristine area and I’m working in two valleys.  I’m doing two big studies here looking at the baseline information about all the different bee species in the semi desert area which has a – it’s the richest plant semi desert in the world.  And so it’s an interesting environment to work in. But I'm also looking at small-scale organic farms in this region that have no pollination units coming in at all. They are wild honeybee colonies that migrate down to the farms when there is enough moisture food.  They come out of the mountains and they migrate down to the farms and you have excess of it.  

And this incredible diverse in fact most of the pollination that’s happening on the farms is by solitary and semi-social bees.  And it's wonderful to see the diversity which is extraordinary and they are almonds and they are citrus and they are plants as a whole ecosystem not as a mono system.  So it's you can do these things but we need to change the scale of them and we need to be – the farming needs to change the scale, not to these huge environments. And we need to have biodiversity leading us on these planets because that is the rule of thriving on our planet is biodiversity it’s not mono and that’s what we've done.  And we also industrialized our bees and that's in that thinking as well.  

And it means we’re running counter flow to what is actually real and sustainable on our planet.  Not just sustainable but we will thrive if we see ourselves as a bio diverse and part of that bio diverse system and then that we’re interconnected to everything.  So at the moment we are killing the planet and ourselves. We just need to like you’re doing, which I think is fantastic is just continually pointing out how the system works and how wrong it is and to expose more and more people to that toxic system and unethical system.  

And so that people can make better choices for themselves and for the world around them because it's everybody has the power to change this through buying and supporting and ethically growing food.  And I think that that’s crucial absolutely crucial if we are going to survive as a species.

Terry Oxford:  And the bottom line is, is that most of the world's food that is grown almost 40% of it is thrown away in this country.  It's a crime, it's an outrage.  

Jenny Cullinan:  It’s certainly correct in terms of waste.  And it’s very, very interesting because nature hates waste.  You don't see waste in natural ecosystems. And if one looks at it's the wild honeybees in South Africa, the ones that we’re studying is that there is no such thing as surplus honey.  They only make what the colony needs. So if there is a lot of flowers, everyday, the scouts go out and they assess what is coming into flower. They come back, they tell the house bees, the house bees cleanup an area of comb, usher the queen into that area, she lays according to what comb has been cleaned up for her to lay in.  

And when those young bees hatch they are in sync with what is flowering.  And in South Africa our bees don’t hibernate so and they do what is called follow the flow, which is to follow the flow with the flowers around them.  So there are many, many amounts of honey that is required for the colony and the colony size is determined by the cavity size that they’re choosing. And they don’t choose big cavity sizes so we have smaller cavity sizes.  And of course they have an ability to assess what other cavities are available if there is a new colony, a rare productive colony produced.  

So they are constantly aware of the environment and the change of flowers and also the other pollinators and the other creatures that feed on flowers.  So they will not reproduce and put out another colony that will be in competition to themselves if there isn't enough food. So it’s an incredibly sophisticated system and we should learn from that as the human species if one looks it’s always difficult to quote ages of things but Professor Seeley says that honeybees are 80 million years old.  So okay, let’s take that number if they’re 80 million years old they have a lot of wisdom.  

And they have evolved to understand that greed is not going to allow for their survival and it’s something we haven't learnt as a species yet.  And we really, really, really need to grasp that one pretty quickly.  

Terry Oxford:  You know, and I do think that conscious evolution could happen.  I know it's happened with so many people I talk to, I see it all the time, I see a light go on.  I know I've pollinated somebody and they’ve understood that things are not the way that they thought.  So I think that an evolution is absolutely necessary and could come and it's got to be about including other species because we are a monoculture species and we like to think about ourselves only and including all the other species of the planet is the number one way to our survival to be inclusive of everything and inviting biodiversity and diversity and having our food system support other creatures as well, not just us.  

Jenny Cullinan:  It’s an incredibly important thing to understand our place within this beautiful world that we live in.  And it’s such a beautiful world and I find it's extraordinary. When I go, I’m invited to go somewhere and to speak and I'm staying at a conservation environment.  And the first thing I find in the room that I'm staying in is a spray for insects. And I go to the people and I say, you’ve just invited me to come and speak, what is this is in my room? And you find that and it’s such a blind spot with people and you say do you realize that insects are dying and you want me to have this in my room.  

And so we’ve got to really, really, really look at everything that we do and our footprint is extraordinarily big for one species.  And then the planet cannot sustain our current trajectory. And we have to change and it's wonderful to hear that you’ve encountered lots of people who have heard your message and are changing.  Karen and I work in incredibly remote parts of South Africa in these reserves so we don’t necessarily encounter too much wild species generally which is probably a good thing. We spend a lot of time with wild animals and it's wonderful to see that we are the visitors in that environment and we’re very, very conscious of being the outsiders in that environment.  

And so when we visit that environment, we make sure that we behave appropriately and that we set a good example of our species.  And that’s very, very crucial to our study. We do not impose on the wildlife around us and we’re very respectful of it because we are the outsiders ultimately in these vast reserves.  And it’s actually great to feel that way because then you come back and you try and tell our species that we’re really you’re missing so much if you don't connect with nature and you’re missing just this beautiful language of interconnectedness.  And if we’re exploiting it all the time then we are the ones that are missing out. It’s an incredibly beautiful world out there and we do, we are a part of it but we shouldn’t try and break it.  

Terry Oxford:  And yeah and stop taking, start giving more than we take as opposed to taking more than we give.  And that was what was moving to me about when I met you, I'd already been becoming conscious that as a beekeeper I was becoming part of the problem in a small city like San Francisco.  There is not much forage here and we have a rich biodiversity as well. So it was really when I met you and we started talking like this that I thought I've got to do the right thing and reduce beehives.  So that's what I've done, I’ve reduced by half my beehives and have started to raise two native pollinators. And one of them is an amazing butterfly that lives on weeds that grow everywhere in the city.  

So I know there is ample food for them and I know that that food is pretty much untouched.  There is no chemicals in it. It's organic weeds. And so that's just brought a lot of joy to me and making me feel like I’m becoming less of a problem and more helpful of a solution.  You’ve got a big preserve. I've got like a very congested city but I feel like I can bring more biodiversity and support the biodiversity here by focusing on organic forage, which for me is trees.  I don't have meadows in this city, I only have trees.  

Jenny Cullinan:  South Africa has an incredible diversity in terms of landscape.  So we go from deserts to unique floral kingdom, the desert kingdom to subtropical.  So we are a very, very diverse country and we are of course a very big country, South Africa here and it’s we have indigenous wild honeybees and they are at the moment in this particular region.  We’re just at a cusp I think where managed bees could become such a huge threat to their survival. And so you know working closely with conservational authorities in making sure that they are definitely protected.  

But it means we have to engage with the neighbors which are often industrial farms.  And so that means a lot of education. And so one has to go and speak to people a lot and try and do things differently.  But certainly if one had flowering trees as borders and around big farms and flowering at different times so that there is always forage for scientists.  There are so many ways and solutions to assisting bees and manage bees in terms of their health and wealth and that needs to be looked at very closely.

Terry Oxford:  You must have amazing trees.  I would love to see more trees of your pictures with pollinators in them that's so cool to me that’s like candy.  Well, I’m so glad I met you. I just think you're both remarkable. You and Karen are just remarkable people. And I'm so glad that you’re there and protecting and I know the planet is really grateful for you as well.  And I thank you for speaking with me today. Was there anything else that you wanted to add? 

Jenny Cullinan:  Yes, I want to just say thank you very much Terry for giving us the opportunity well, me in particular to speak about bee conservation because I really truly think that it's not understood.  Bee conservation is not putting bees in boxes and saving. You don’t save bees by putting them in boxes. Bees should always be and if they’re indigenous honeybees should always be in their wild homes of their choice and they should be protected there.  So many European countries have actually allowed the industrial bee associations to have the voice of their honeybees, which means conservational authorities have lost their ability to safeguard honeybees in the wild.  

And that's why honeybee populations have crashed in Europe and they’ve lost their wild honeybees and they only have a mishmash of genetically modified bees in a lot of places.  And there is a big scramble now in Europe to re-wild bees into wild spaces. That would never have happened if they hadn’t allowed industry to have the narrative of bees. Conservation should always have the narrative of bees in countries where honeybees are indigenous.  So thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak from that conservation platform and to be able to have the wild voice of honeybees spoken about, because in our country wild honeybees thrive and they need to be protected in that space that they choose to live in.  

And basically if we don’t take care of them, we’re not going to thrive.  So thanks Terry. Thanks for your platforms and thanks for all your support of what we do.  We truly appreciate it.  

Terry Oxford:  I'm Terry Oxford and this is Pollinators and Power.  Thanks for listening.