Bees and Trees

Using African honeybees as a deterrent method for African elephant impacts on marula  trees in South Africa
(Michelle Henley)

In South Africa, Protected Areas managers and tourists alike are concerned that our expanding elephant population will negatively affect the number and structure of iconic tree species such as the Marula (Sclerocarya birrea). Elephants Alive (www.ElephantsAlive.org) were approached by South Africa National Parks (SANParks) in 2012 to discuss methods which could be used to keep elephants out of particular areas where certain landscape features such as tall trees needed to be preserved as part of the biodiversity objectives of SANParks. Elephants Alive have been studying the accumulated impact of elephants on large trees since 2004 and have looked at mitigation methods which could be used to increase the survival rate of large trees. One such method included using wire-net protection around the stem of the tree which diminishes its chance of being bark-stripped by elephants.

The next logical step was to partner up with Dr Lucy King from the Elephants and Bees Project (http://elephantsandbees.com/) to test the efficacy of African honeybees as a deterrent mechanism to keep elephants away from the iconic Marula tree. In 2015 Elephants Alive asked Robin Cook to take the study on as his MSc. degree through the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for African Ecology Lab (South Africa) to test how effective African honeybees are at protecting iconic trees when compared to the tried and tested methods of wire-net protection which does increase the survival rate of tall trees favoured by elephants as food sources. This research is being carried out under the supervision of Dr Michelle Henley (Elephants Alive), Dr Lucy King (Elephants and Bees Project), Associate Professor Francesca Parrini (University of the Witwatersrand) and Professor Ed Witkowski (University of the Witwatersrand).

Robin is conducting his study within Jejane Private Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park. His research is focused on assessing elephant impact on marula trees with beehives hung from the branches. The Elephants Alive team helped with the making of 115 beehives for this research, of which 100 have been placed in Jejane Private Nature Reserve and the remaining 15 at Mica Village, the research base of Elephants Alive, for honey production. In December 2015, 50 live swarms were transferred into the beehives in Jejane Private Nature Reserve within a single night. Each study tree with beehives is surrounded by a control tree (with no beehives) and another study tree with wire-net protection. Over time Robin has been monitoring which mitigation method proves to be the most effective and whether the elephants avoid both methods by simply going for the unprotected (control) trees.

When dealing with nature one has to contend with many unexpected variables. The prevailing drought in South Africa has been hard for the bees and Michelle had to design special feeders with a sugar water drip system which could be regulated to keep them going. The bees are further supplemented with pollen and nectar solutions during the dry winter months. To date, elephants have been frequenting the study plot on a weekly basis, with bulls being the most prevalent visitors since the study’s commencement. Currently the results are looking encouraging with far more control trees receiving varying forms of elephant impact in comparison to wire-netted and beehive trees. Thus far, the only elephant impact on a beehive tree is the displacement of a dummy hive from its branch, with the most likely culprit being an elephant. The relationship between elephants, bees and marula trees will be intriguing to observe as South Africa enters its driest months of the year and the elephants become more reliant on woody species for food.

The significance of the work in the South African context

There are many forms of Human-Elephant-Conflict (HEC). The most extreme example is the present killing of one elephant every 15 minutes for their ivory to satisfy human greed. In South Africa, peoples’ concern, unease and annoyance at elephants’ ability to affect the structure and in cases the functioning of iconic trees such

as the marula, can be viewed as a milder form of HEC. Marula trees represent important fruit bearing trees as they are considered of cultural significance and economic importance. Some would rather see elephant numbers reduced through legal and lethal killings than have iconic tree structures altered.

For subsistence farmers, the loss of a crop has huge ramifications to their survival. To a land manager of a protected area dependent on tourism income, dissatisfied visitors could also mean less income down the line. Both farmers and managers need tools to protect their assets. Using bees has the potential to alleviate potential conflict by peaceful means. Bees have the added benefit of providing honey and functioning as important pollinators. By-products of a study like Robin’s could contribute towards increasing food security. As local people are trained to manufacture beehives and develop beekeeping skills, studies such as these not only contribute towards science but also broadens local community skills and could become valuable case-studies for promoting job creation whilst promoting ecological services and system functioning.

A special thanks to our sponsors

We would like to thank the  EMS Foundation for their support for the Bee Hive project. Thank you also to Woolworths and Relate for the ongoing support given to our efforts to better the world for elephants. Numerous private donors have also ‘adopted’ a beehive by sponsoring the manufacturing, upkeep and monitoring costs. Any other donors who wish to donate towards to continuation and upkeep of this project can do so using PayPal or the GoFundMe link on our home page (www.elephantsalive.org). For electronic transfers, please contact info2u@elephantsalive.org.