A Changing Landscape

Field Report by International Intern, Tatiana Chapman 

The beautifully barren landscape I arrived to

I first arrived on the 19th September to a mystically barren landscape. Thorny grey bushes entangled themselves across the deep red soil and dust coated the landscape. Rain had not been seen for a while and the short rains were due soon. Water was scarce and hard to come by for trees and animals alike.

It’s hard to say whether after a week or so I just got used to this stark grey and red landscape, having managed to adjust from the omnipresent green of England, and therefore started to notice the little specks of green in the landscape or perhaps it was actually turning greener. It was probably a mixture of both but there was no doubt that it was indeed turning greener yet little rain had been seen. The trees, shrubs and animals knew the cycle of the year much better than any weather report. The baobabs had started to produce leaves and the ants were scurrying around foraging for food. The rains were very near and the land was telling us.

View from the top of Sagalla Hill

The changing landscape and a steep, beautiful and tiring walk up the Sagalla Hill with Paul, a local botanist, got me interested in what else the landscape, trees, shrubs and animals have to offer. Medicinal qualities seemed to lie hidden in most corners. There is so much to discover but I thought I would write down the few nuggets I have gleaned from local knowledge and from various books I have read on the surrounding landscapes and on the almighty bees that are central to this project.

A gnarly Baobab tree

Naturally the awe inspiring grandeur of Baobab’s have captured my attention. These spectacular trees are common in the Sagalla area, marking the landscape with their vastness. The biggest is thought to be in South Africa, the ‘Sagole Baobab’ which has a trunk diameter of 10.47 meters. Their fruit is often eaten around these parts and its succulent taste makes sure to leave its mark on your palate. These fruits can be found sold as sweets around Kenya having first been coloured and packaged (and much sugar added!). Rich in Vitamin C and with a high fibre content its fruits are believed to help in all manners of digestive problems. They are packed with antioxidants which can help reduce inflammation. The leaves are even believed to cure epilepsy.

A Baobab with its first burst of new leaves

Acacia trees also govern a lot of the ground around the research centre with their grey thorns making paths difficult to navigate. Used frequently as barriers around people’s property as another deterrent to elephants, many Acacia species also have some medicinal value. You can buy acacia gum which is used to soothe coughs and sore throats, reliving pain and irritation. Acacia catechu has been found to promote oral health effectively and is used in dental products. However, the best dental tip came from when I was up at the school and the headmaster came to chat with me. In the course of our conversation he pointed to a nearby tree asking if I knew it. Typically, I did not. He told me it was a tamarind, a tree I had actually already encountered before and, in fact, eaten its fruit. He said that it was the very best tree for toothbrushes. He made me one by stripping away the bark from a long stem and explained that they were trying to encourage the children to use these instead of the plastic ones, so common to the Western world that inevitably end up littering our beaches at some point in their expendable life. It’s hard bark and fresh taste certainly left me convinced.

The school headmaster making me my tamarind toothbrush

A key delight of mine during my stay has been, quite simply, eating mangos. I cannot get enough of their utterly delicious sweet taste. Whilst helping with the upcoming Sagalla plant guide I was pleased to learn some more about these truly wonderful trees. Apparently, fumes from its burning leaves are inhaled as relief for hiccups and throat infections and the seed is used in asthma treatment. Unfortunately, for the farmers around here, elephants also think mango trees are delicious. We have come across many trees completely destroyed by them. Mine and the elephants favourite breakfasts…

A mango tree destroyed by an elephant the night before

As I’m heading into the second month of my internship I continue to be amazed about just how green it has become. I couldn’t believe anything like grass could spring up in the barren landscape I first came across but now, after some considerable rain the place is officially green – everywhere. Not only that but the occupation rates of the hives are booming and new occupations keep being recorded as nature is seizing its opportunities with the rain.

The fresh green coating Sagalla Hill

Books and books have been written about the fascinating world of bees, their diversity, their social structure, bee keeping and more. Such small creatures have filled humans with awe for centuries. Honey is written about in the classical myths and has filled medicinal books for years; it truly is a golden substance as it is thought to heal wounds and burns, reduce the duration of diarrhoea, prevent acid reflux and of course relieve colds.

I knew very little about bees when I came here but what a place to start learning about them! With the insight from this project and also reading ‘Buzz’ by Thor Hanson I now know a little about their complex worlds. My first insight to how very naïve I was about them was to learn that there is a huge diversity of bees and the vast majority of them don’t make honey. There are over 16,000 species of bees so far recognised, which are divided into seven recognised biological families. Most bees aren’t in fact eusocial but indeed solitary creatures. They evolved from wasps, although it is hard to set a date of when this first happened due to a poor fossil record. The oldest unequivocal bee fossil dates to 55 million years ago, therefore bees are thought to have evolved in the Cretaceous period, famous for its dinosaurs. The defining characteristic of a bee is surprisingly simple; its vegetarianism. Bees depend on nectar and therefore bees could not evolve without the evolution of flowers as well. Flowers are so common to our world now it is hard to imagine earth without these beautiful specks of colour. To humans they are so attractive, yet imagine what they are to bees – their prime attraction target. Most bees can’t see red light (hence using a red light in beekeeping) but they can see ultraviolet and thus a flower to a bee must be even more extraordinary than it is to the human eye. They literally see the world in a different light.

There is a lot that bees have to watch out for. As is common with nature parasites are never far away. When bee keeping we have had to keep a beady eye out for hive beetles, wasps, wax moths and other such pests. Not to mention the snakes that often jump out at you from the empty hives! But even within their own ranks there is danger for bees with about 20% being parasitic. This is particularly dangerous for solitary mother bees who face their nest being ‘cuckooed’. This risk is much less for the eusocial honey bees we work with.

Working with a beehive Photo: Derick Wanjala

With honey bees the whole colony seems to function like a body, revolving around the queen. The queen’s critical role is to populate the colony as she is the only fully sexually developed female and produces pheromones that unite the colony.  She is selected out of the worker bee larvae and feed royal jelly till she is fully developed. When she emerges she leaves the hive to mate with drones from another colony to prevent inbreeding. Mother bees can control the sex of their offspring by their ability to store sperm and ‘choose’ to fertilising an egg or not. The fertilised eggs produce females, the unfertilised males. These male bees, drones, have the single function to mate. They don’t possess stings, pollen baskets or wax glands – when they have mated, they die. The female worker bees attend to the queen’s needs, forming the majority of a colony. They are responsible for cleaning, feeding, and guarding the hive. Worker bees communicate with each other via a special waggle dance which directs their team members to sources of pollen and nectar. The sting used to guard the hive is thought to evolve originally from the wasp’s reproductive system, where they would use the long stinger to kill their prey and then lay their larva on them so it could feed off that prey. Now it is a defence mechanism that sadly leaves the female fatally wounded.


Sun setting over the hills

The different flowers and plants which bees forage from produces different tasting honey. An ongoing project is trying to figure out what our bees are mainly feeding on to produce their honey. This along with the amount of smoke used produces the different tastes of honey produced worldwide. Our Elephant Friendly Honey is exceptional for its clear sweet taste. As with any landscape and its inhabitants there is so much to learn as the different elements interplay and produce a phenomenal ecosystem. One could spend a lifetime studying a small space and still not know all its qualities. I feel very lucky to have witnessed the extraordinary change of this landscape from grey to green and learn a very little about what it contains.

Photo credits: Tatiana Chapman

The views, opinions and position expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy and position of Save the Elephants

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