An update from the field in Wasgamuwa, Sri Lanka!

Report by Sri Lankan intern, Zaineb Akbarally

We are approaching the end of our current field season in Sri Lanka and what an exciting and successful three months it has been for the team! I joined the small team here on the ground in North Central, Sri Lanka on the outskirts of the Wasgamuwa National Park earlier this year in January to work on understanding and mitigating the intense human-elephant conflict that plagues the villagers bordering this park. Our base, a field house is located overlooking the beautiful Karawgas Weva and surrounded by the spectacular Knuckles Mountain range making it a picturesque and tranquil setting to live and work from.

View from the SLWCS field house

When I arrived at the project site in late January, I hit the ground running as there was a lot of fence maintenance needed to be done as the fences has been damaged during the heavy rains in the preceding weeks. So, our days were spent rebuilding fences, replacing posts, putting up new shade roofs to provide shade for the bees from the intense heat and some protection from the tropical thunderstorms. Mostly we were busy cleaning out the hives of which mice, palm squirrels, vine snakes and even Russell’s Vipers had chosen to build their homes in!  We also had to get up to speed with our data collection so we would spend time every week visiting the households in the village to collect information on elephant raids and to record the economic losses the farmers had made as a consequence.

A Vine snake that had taken residence inside a beehive during the rainy season.

However, most days, in the field have a lovely rhythm to it as we spend the mornings in the field working with the bees or collecting data and our afternoons at a Weva (Sinhalese for a lake or tank) observing wild elephant families as they come down for an afternoon drink or bath.

Elephants in Wasgamuwa NP.

One of the highlights of our field season was having a successful beekeeping workshop – which was conducted by Frank Ryde. Frank, a very successful businessman and passionate beekeeper very kindly visited our field base in Wasgamuwa and enlightened and educated both the farmers and the elephants and bees team in Wasgamuwa on beekeeping skills and the honey harvesting process.

 

Frank Ryde demonstrating on how to transfer a bee colony from a clay
pot to a bee box. (Photo credit Jessica Van Fleteren)

Prior to Franks visit he had advised us to start hanging up clay pots around the village we work in – in an effort to catch wild bee swarms.  Clay pots are traditionally used in Sri Lanka to store water as the clay keeps the water cool and refreshing, despite the intense heat. For the same reasons the clay pots make a comfortable and attractive home for wild bee swarms.

A clay pot hung in a shady spot, in an attempt to attract a wild bee swarm

Hence, we spent time in the days leading up to his visit distributing and hanging up clay pots in and around the vicinity of the farms we work at hoping to catch as many wild bee swarms as we could so that we can then transfer these bees into bee boxes along our fences and hence have a higher hive occupancy rate along the fences. Hive occupancy rates had dropped considerably at the end of last year as a consequence of a prolonged drought we have suffered in Sri Lanka.

Rather excitingly catching wild bee swarms in clay pots has proven to be a very effective and an efficient method for attracting bee colonies. Within the first week of hanging up the clay pots we had attracted several honey bee colonies into the clay pots!

A Bee colony that’s occupied a clay pot! (Photo Credit: Jessica Van Fleteren)

Frank, during his visit demonstrated on how we can transfer these bees from the pots into the hives – which allows the bees more room to build comb which in turn allows for more honey to be harvested by the farmers – whilst also hopefully keeping their valuable crops safe from the night time raids of elephants!

Further, during Frank’s visit he demonstrated to us on how to harvest honey sustainably.

Without a doubt bottling the first jars of honey for the project – was an absolute highlight of the season! Seeing the thrill and excitement on the faces of our farmers knowing that their hard work in caring for their bees is paying dividends in the form of an added income source was very gratifying. As one of the core project objectives which makes the project sustainable is that the families with beehive fences see added value in being good beekeepers for both the ecological and monetary benefits it brings.

Jessica and I with some of our freshly harvested honey.

On a personal level, my fondness for children means I have become good friends with many of the children who live in the village we work in. Soon as they see me they come running out of their classrooms to say hello, give high fives and to play and I often have to remind them that I have work to do and that they need to go back to class and study, and that I will come back another time to play! Yet, I always make it a point to spend some time interacting with these kids, as I believe very strongly that if our work in conservation is to succeed we need the youth to connect and see value in the protection of elephants and other species. Therefore, I hope that by spending time interacting with these school children and sharing my stories, experiences and passion for these incredible animals, I can hopefully turn some of them into budding conservationist as well.

My play mates trumpeting like an elephant.

In this regard, I know I have succeeded with little Rusiru whose only 6 years old and is in awe and in love with elephants – as soon as he sees me he asks to come over to the field house and draw the local wildlife and constantly asks me to tell elephant stories.

Rusiru, with one of his many artworks (photo credit: Jessica Van Fleteren

To end, we at Elephants and Bees, Sri Lanka are very thrilled at the success of the past field season and we are enthusiastic for the upcoming field season as it promises to be yet another very exciting and rewarding phase for the project. Since, we hope to collect more conducive data on the viability of using beehive fences in keeping crop raiding elephants off farms – whilst also hopefully been able to replicate the success of the Elephants and Bees project in Kenya.

Be sure to stay in touch with the project and await an update from the upcoming field season.

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