Bees, Trees and Elephants

April 2021
Beehive donated to save iconic trees from elephants

In collaboration with Elephants Alive, the Wild Wonderful World Conservation Trust donated (with thanks to our donors!) an active bee hive to support their Bee's, Trees and Elephants Project! The project focuses on protecting iconic tree species using bees as a deterrant to elephants, preventing them knocking over or damaging the trees.

Here in South Africa, the Marula tree is an important keystone as well as iconic species and there is a lot of concern about elephant impact on Marula trees, especially as it one of their favourite species to eat. Michelle Henley implemented a research project to test the effectiveness of beehives to protect Marula trees. The first study ran from 2015 – 2020 with 50 beehives and its results were remarkable: Following five years of assessments, 32% of the control (no protection) and 28% of the wire-netted trees died, in comparison to 6% of the beehive trees (beehives that were hanging but inactive). No marula tree containing an active beehive died as a result of elephant impact during this period. This study proved the effectiveness of using bees to protect important trees within wilderness areas and the ongoing project now aims to continue to protect keystone/ iconic trees in the greater Kruger area.

The Operation

During daylight hours in the week leading up to the 14th April, Robin Cook (PhD – leading the research and project) and his team chose and prepared the Marula tree for its new beehive. The location of the hive was carefully chosen – firstly in an area that contains a number of iconic Marula trees, then placed on an elephant pathway, as well as on the permitter edge of the protected area (to prevent the elephants moving in at all). Wires that support a wooden platform (on which the hive will be placed) were strung up to a branch in a vulnerable position – vulnerable on purpose to ensure that an elephant who feeds on or moves against the tree will cause the branch (and therefore hive) to shake and disturb the bees into swarming. The platform is also hung at elephant eye level, so that it is clearly visible to the elephants.

How was the Hive populated?

Once built, the team used local bee breeders to populate the hive. They specially used African Honeybee’s due to their aggressive nature, and also ensured that they use bee’s from the lowveld area so that the bees are used to the plants and flowers available to them and are used to the climate. The hives are either populated manually or left in key areas to populate naturally. Once a hive is populated and is given a number of months to allow time for the bees to settle and start producing honey, at which point it is deemed ready to be moved.

How was the hive moved?

Bees have to be moved at night because this is when they are all in the hive, not out foraging as they are in the day. The cooler night time temperatures also make the bees calmer. In addition, bees are usually busy with hive maintenance at night which also keeps them calm and distracted. These new bee hives have an entrance which can be turned and locked, which keeps all the bees inside. So the entrance is locked, the hive is loaded onto a vehicle and then driven out to the game reserve. The bumpy drive can initially disturb the bees however it is reported that they tend to calm down over the duration of the journey.

The challenge however, it walking through the bush in a Big-5 game reserve to put the hive up at night! It requires a lot of security with rifles and torches, as well as a team talk to discuss the various escape routes if anything goes wrong or if a predator joins the party!

At the new location, the hive is carried from the vehicle and placed onto the platform in the Marula tree where it is closed down onto the wooden board to keep it in place. The hive is placed in a North Easterly facing direction – so that the entrance faces the morning sunrise – as this is when bees are the most active, starting their activities and foraging, so hives face the sunrise ensures maximum activity time.

A nectar bottle is placed with the hive to provide immediate food for the bees. The nectar bottle lasts a week and available to the bees for around a month, which gives the bees time to settle into their new environment and start finding enough food naturally. No honey is harvested from the hives at this time.

Post Operation Update

The hive was successfully placed and the bees are doing well and have settled in nicely. When their new dose of nectar was delivered, they were not aggressive and reported to be very happy! There was evidence of elephants within 15 meters of the hive but no impact on the tree was reported. There was also no evidence of ant invasions, which is great! The team lose more hives to raiding ants than anything else, however they have started recently treating the hive wires with a sticky substance called Plantex Glue, which prevents the ants from reaching the bees. The researchers are very happy with the bees and hive and say thank you very much!!

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