Elephants, Bees and Marula Trees: Promoting the Co-Existence of Elephants and Big Trees

Apr 30, 2019 | Commentary

By Mr Robin Cook (Big Trees Project Manager) & Dr Michelle Henley (Co-founder, Director and Principal Researcher) – Elephants Alive

The visual presence of an African elephant standing alongside an iconic marula tree is a lasting memory that many safari goers take home after visiting South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park (KNP). Indeed, both elephants and marula trees are keystone species in their own right, playing crucial roles in the functioning of their surrounding ecosystems. However, as the increasing human population compresses elephant populations in their remaining natural environments, environmental impact by elephants becomes more prevalent. Whilst elephant impact on a large scale can be managed through the manipulation of waterholes and habitat expansion, this is not always possible for smaller protected areas and water-saturated environments. Increased elephant impact on iconic trees within these protected areas often leads to mild forms of human-elephant conflict (HEC), where hostilities towards elephants may arise over the loss of a particular iconic tree, whether it be for ecological or aesthetic reasons. It is therefore necessary to develop methods which may protect these iconic trees from elephant impact.

Beehive placed strategically in Marula trees keep elephants at bay

Research by Dr Lucy King has shown how African honeybees can be used a HEC mitigation tool in Kenya, where beehive fences are built around crop fields to keep crop raiding elephants at bay. Although elephants may be thick skinned, they are still vulnerable to bee-stings around the ears and eyes, as well as within the trunk. Elephants Alive built on this information to investigate whether African honeybees could be used as practical tool for alleviating elephant impact on marula trees, creating the Elephants, Bees, Trees & People Project.

In December 2015, a study site was demarcated in Jejane Private Nature Reserve of the Greater KNP to test the effectiveness of African honeybees as a tree protection tool. Active beehives were hung on 50 adult marula trees at a height of 2m above the ground. A further 50 marula trees have been used as control trees to allow the researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of the beehives. Elephant impact has been continually measured on all of these trees since the project’s commencement, and the results have been extremely encouraging. Following the three-year assessments, 80% of the control trees had received some form of elephant impact in comparison to just 8% of the beehive trees. Furthermore, 18% of the control trees have died due to elephant impact in comparison the 2% of the beehive trees.

An exciting second phase of the project has been the production of natural honey from these beehives. Whilst no honey was collected during the first two years of the study due to the drought conditions in South Africa, the above-normal rainfall over the 2018/19 summer months have resulted in an abundance of flowers across the Greater KNP and hence, an abundance of honey! Five harvests have been conducted between October 2018 and March 2019, producing over 70 litres of honey.

This honey has proven to be extremely popular, with each harvest tasting slightly different to the last, depending on which trees are in flower. Another product which has come from the project is lip balm, a combination of the bees’ wax, vanilla essence and coconut oil. This helps ensure that no resources are wasted during a harvest, but instead go into products which can be sold to generate funds for the project’s sustainability.

A third phase will focus on expanding the project’s outreach into the surrounding communities, where Elephants Alive will partner with established organisations to promote beekeeping as a sustainable practice for community members. Four nodes have been identified for the establishments of apiaries, where indigenous bee-friendly plants will be grown to support the active beehives and promote honey production.  We are extremely excited to see the commencement of this phase.

The Elephants, Bees, Trees & People Project is proving the value of African honeybees as both a tool for resolving HEC surrounding elephant impact on iconic trees, we well as the potential for sustainable income through the harvesting of honey and wax. The project gives conservation managers and landowners the option of using honeybees as method of protecting iconic trees within their boundaries, whether it be for ecological or aesthetic purposes.

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