Celebrating Five Years of Protecting Trees with Bees

by Robin Cook & Dr Michelle Henley

On a warm summer’s night in December 2015, Elephants Alive, in conjunction with Jejane Private Nature Reserve, initiated the ambitious operation of hanging fifty active beehives in fifty marula trees in order to test whether African honeybees could be used to protect trees against elephant impact. Five years down the line, Elephants Alive’s researchers have methodically collected data to gain a clearer understanding as to how this biological relationship functions, learning new information as the years go by.

Robin Cook

Dr. Lucy King’s research in Kenya had clearly shown that African honeybees can be used to protect crops from crop-raiding elephants, thus increasing human-elephant co-existence around protected areas. Elephants are vulnerable to bee-stings in their eyes, ears and trunks, which appears to be more than enough reasons for them to avoid contact with an angry bee swarm. Here in Hoedspruit, Elephants Alive’s Dr Michelle Henley, who had been tasked at the time to investigate tree protection methods as part of a collaborative project with South African National Parks, thus initiated the concept of using bees to protect iconic trees. Michelle contacted Robin Cook to drive the project for his Master’s degree at Wits University, with Michelle and Lucy as co-supervisors. Jejane Private Nature Reserve, who have always been strong supporters of Elephants Alive’s research activities, kindly agreed to host the project.

The project has lived through both wet and dry years, ranging from high to low bee occupancy levels, providing valuable data as to its effectiveness in the Lowveld system. The project itself compares elephant impact levels on marula trees containing beehives, as well as those containing wire-netting (chick-mesh wrapped around a tree to prevent bark-stripping), and trees left as controls (no protection). Elephant impacts to these trees are meticulously monitored each year, allowing the researchers to evaluate effectiveness levels of each method. And after five years, are the beehives working? The answer is still a resounding “Yes”. Our results show that beehives can decrease tree mortality by six-fold, versus trees with no protection. And to date, no marula tree with an active beehive has died from elephant impact. Whilst elephants may still feed off trees with empty beehives, the probability of these trees getting pushed over or snapped is far lower in comparison to their wire-netted and control counterparts.

Elephants Alive honey

We can also celebrate the incredible pure honey produced by Elephants Alive’s beehives, of which over eighty litres were harvested this year alone! This natural golden honey has been sold to lodges, tourists and locals across the country, giving guests a sweet taste from the Greater Kruger National Park. The honey has also been used by Dr Joel Alves of WildScapes Veterinary & Conservation Services as an anti-septic treatment for wounded animals within the surrounding landscape. We are humbled to see the bees’ hard-made honey being used to treat multiple species of animals, including wild dogs, rhinos and elephants. Nature always has the answer!

This Elephants Alive project continues to be a success, with elephant, bee and tree conservation and co-existence on the frontlines, as well as a steady flow of honey to support our initiatives. We would like to say a big thank you to all funders, volunteers and Jejane Private Nature Reserve for helping Elephants Alive make this project such a success.

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