Beehive Fences and so much more

A blog post by Chloe Lucas, international intern from the UK.

I came across the Elephants and Bees project whilst researching for a University project on human-wildlife conflict and was immediately struck by its seemingly simplistic nature and astonishing results. I never imagined that less than a year later I would be in Kenya witnessing the beehive fences with my own eyes and rapidly learning that the project encompasses so much more than just the physical fences.

Working on the project there is no such thing as a ‘typical day in the office’ and over the past month I’ve helped to monitor fences, repair damaged hives, collect camera trap images, make lip balm, start a permaculture demonstration garden, track elephant raids, start the foundations for a new fence and much more. I have come to realise the construction of the beehive fences is only just the start and there are so many aspects to the project that I had previously failed to consider. Here, I shall attempt to highlight how the beehive fence itself forms just a small part of this amazing project.

As October approaches each day gets hotter and drier, we await the rains with great anticipation. When the rains come, the crops will start growing and the elephants come therefore we must hurry against the weather to ensure all the hives are in top condition. To do this, we monitor each farm checking the posts are sturdy, that there are roofs to provide the bees with shade and Honey Badger guards are in place. Occasionally an occupied hive will need new posts or raising out of the reach of Honey Badgers and this is where things get exciting. As dusk approaches we get ready, putting on wellies, gloves and a bee suit. In darkness we approach the hive, smoking the bees to calm them and then as quickly as possible complete the necessary work. There is certainly something very special about working under the African stars.

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Photo: Chloe, Mikki and Joannah in bee suits ready for hive maintenance

With the dryness comes a lack of vegetation and plants; those farmers that still have occupied hives are certainly very lucky as many of the bees have left the hives in search of food. Without the bees the fence becomes ineffective and elephants can easily break through it. Consequently, reducing the human –elephant conflict here is not possible without also maintaining enough natural vegetation for the bees. This is a side of the beehive fences that I had not really considered before arriving in Sagalla but one I am learning about on a daily basis. A permaculture demonstration garden is being constructed at Kileva school with the aim of showing the farmers different methods to make their Shamba’s bee friendly. When I arrived the plot was completely bare, now a month later it is ready for planting and it will be great to see the changes as the rains come.

Perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of my internship so far has been to help begin the construction of three new beehive fences. It is so great to think that three new farmers will be able to plant their crops with the knowledge that the bees will help to protect them from elephants. We began by assessing each farm and deciding with the farmer where best to place the hives ensuring that it will protect areas in which elephants are usually destructive. It was then a case of measuring exactly where each post will need to go. Then the hard work really began! Each post requires a hole 2ft deep to be dug by hand; it may not sound much but with limited equipment and the scorching sun it soon becomes exhausting. However, knowing that the fence will change the farmer’s life is certainly enough motivation to keep digging and I am eager to see the project through from start to finish.

Interns marking out farm (s)

Photo: Chloe helping the Elephants and Bees Project Officer, Augustine, to mark out the location of a new beehive fence in Mwambiti Village. This particular fence is being funded by the Disney Conservation Fund.

Even when the farms are quiet and the digging too much, there is plenty to be done. Using beeswax leftover from the last honey harvesting season and under the watchful eye of Emmanuel, we made some honey lip balm. The process was surprisingly simple and the end product a success – well it certainly smells good! Again, this highlights another important aspect of the project showing that so many things can be done with the honey and the bees are not just about deterring elephants. The research centre gets plenty of visitors, in the past month alone we have welcomed people from the surrounding area and overseas, who have the option to buy this lip balm. Not only does it make a great souvenir or gift, but by buying it they donate towards the project and (hopefully) share the successes of the beehive fences with friends and family helping to raise awareness of the project.

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Photo: Beehive Fence Officer, Emmanuel, preparing the organic beeswax left over from honey processing to make Elephant-Friendly Lip Balm

And whilst the past month has flown by in a haze of busyness it’s not all been work; I’ve danced with the Waatha tribe, eaten the most delicious chapatti in the local market and spent hot Sunday afternoon’s watching elephants at a lodge. I feel most privileged to be able to be a part of this project and watch it grow before my own eyes, for this opportunity I will forever be grateful to Lucy.

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Photo: Hanging out with elephants on sundays at Voi Wildlife lodge

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