Working to protect vulnerable populations of both elephants and bees
Report from International Intern, Lorna McCallister ( Sri Lanka Project Site)
This is my fifth week working in Sri Lanka on the ‘Elephants and Bees’ project managed by PhD candidate Kylie Butler. The project goal in Sri Lanka is to study if Asian honeybees can be used as a successful deterrent to crop-raiding Asian elephants in the same way that the project has worked with African bees and elephants.
As we observe local elephants with scars and lumps caused by gunshots from farmers and talk to farmers whose homes and crops have been destroyed by elephants (sometimes multiple times a year), it is clear that more solutions to human-elephant conflict need to be studied and implemented. I am happy to be part of studying the ‘Elephants and Bees’ solution because I think this project, which uses honeybee species that are in decline world-wide to protect elephant species that are also in decline, is beneficial not only for protecting these species from extinction but also for giving people a means to protect their property and coexist with elephants.
Since we arrived at our field site in August, we have spent most mornings working in the beehive fence village. We have been getting the beehive fences in good shape, checking camera traps for signs of elephants close to the farms, and interviewing villagers about human-elephant conflict. The windy season has not been kind to the hives or the roofs which are meant to shade the hives from sun and rain. We have been replacing the broken grass roofs with plywood roofs, rehanging fallen hives, replacing wooden posts damaged by termites, and removing the chewed frames and mice that nest in the honey supers.
Now that it is the dry season, there are less water sources for the bees and the farmers’ fields are being burned to prepare for planting new crops, meaning there are less nectar sources also. To give the bees an extra energy boost this week, Kylie and two field assistants placed bottles filled with sugar water into the hives for the bees to feed on for the next few weeks. It was exciting to see inside the hives for the first time and witness the agitated reaction of the bees. After seeing a field assistant get a few stings, it is easy to see why elephants would be deterred by even the tiny Asian honeybees.
One of my favorite aspects of the ‘Elephants and Bees’ project is that even if the fences fail to deter the elephants, the farmers still get experience in beekeeping and potential products from the bees. In a few weeks, two beekeepers are coming to hold a beekeeping workshop for the village. Today we put together complete hives from our collection of parts so that we can give hives to villagers interested in starting their own colonies. I’m hopeful that the workshop and free hives will increase interest in Kylie’s project and teach the farmers more about maintaining their hives and collecting honey.
For the ‘elephants’ side of the project, we spend evenings collecting data for Kylie’s behavioral analysis of the elephants at the Weheragala water tank. We have been very lucky this field season because the same group of 20-50 elephants show up almost daily. While it is stunning to see the mixed group of elephants ranging from playful calves to massive bulls in musth, the large group has greatly complicated our tasks of taking video footage (usually 3 hours a day plus more than one camera if the elephants are far apart) and writing pages of observational notes every evening. At least we have no worries about getting too little observational data this field season.
The elephants’ lives have also been affected by the dry season. When we first arrived in August, we had the amazing experience of watching the herd bathing in the tank under the full moon. Now the tank is mostly cracked with dry mud and we’ve only witnessed the big bulls being brave enough to walk down to the shallow water edge.
I’m sure the elephants and the bees are eagerly looking forward to some rain. I’m looking forward to my remaining time in Sri Lanka, excited to learn from the beekeeping workshop, and hopeful that this group of elephants will keep making nightly appearances!