Written by International Intern, Camille Morales
Connor, Kat and I (the three American interns) arrived at camp about a month ago, buzzing with excitement to work with the elephants and bees of Sagalla, Kenya. Little did we know that joining us for the next few weeks would be a renowned Kenyan bee expert: Loise Njeru. We immediately dubbed her the Queen Bee of the group, and just how a queen bee can lay 3000 eggs a day, Loise can disperse just as many bees and beekeeping facts in the same period of time. It’s been the ultimate treat getting to learn so much from her, and in this blog, I’m going to share some of the most interesting aspects of honey bee biology.
How a Queen is Crowned
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned from Loise that honey bees are nature’s ultimate feminist. There is practically no job that the female honey bees can’t do. Female worker bees forage for food (pollen and nectar from flowers), protect the hive, feed the drones, build the wax honeycomb structures, and look after the queen.
Meanwhile, the male bees’ (aka drones) sole purpose in life is to mate with a Queen from another hive. The female worker bees take the phrase “working themselves to death” a little too seriously and can die after just 15-30 days of intense work. Meanwhile, the single Queen bee can live for up to nine years! Every female bee has the latent genes to potentially become a queen. Each bee larvae’s fate is instead determined by the amount of royal jelly she’s initially fed. Occasionally, the nursery bees will feed multiple larvae a queen’s amount of royal jelly, and when they hatch, the first thing they have to do is fight to the death. See the video below for a little glimpse at Nature’s very own game of thrones:
How Bees Make Honey and Nature’s Super Glue
One morning while out in the field it struck me that I had no clue how bees actually make honey, so I proceeded to ask Loise. The honey making process all starts when the worker bees collect nectar from flowers. Once back in the hive, they regurgitate this sugary water, and pass it from one sister’s mouth to another sister’s mouth to evaporate off the water, until it becomes the consistency of honey. So, if we’re being scientifically accurate, honey should instead be called evaporated bee vomit. As gross as that sounds, the process makes honey rich in antioxidants, antibacterial properties, and phytonutrients that can help with everything from a sore throat to digestive issues.
In addition to making honey, bees collect tree sap to create a substance called propolis. Propolis is nature’s super glue, and is used to seal holes found in the crevices of the hive. This helps with thermal insulation, prevention of water loss, and protection against pathogens. Bees even use propolis to mummify lizards or mice that sneak into their hive. In defense of their hives, they’ll kill and then engulf the corpses with propolis, which helps prevent the smell of putrefaction and propagation of harmful bacteria and fungi. So, take that Egyptians, bees were doing the whole mummification thing first.
Attracting Bees to the Beehive Fences
While all of this information has been extremely interesting to me, Loise’s information has also proved to be very practical and helpful to The Elephants and Bees project. During morning fieldwork monitoring of beehive fences with Loise, we quickly noticed that many of the beehives surrounding the farmer’s crops were unoccupied. At many of the farms, only one or two of the fifteen hives composing the fence actually had bees in them. As a result of the prolonged drought in Sagalla, many bee colonies left for greener pastures. Farmers attempted to attract these fleeting bees by putting out small bottles of water near the hives. This inadvertently attracted more pests and exacerbated the bees’ exodus. With the crops of cassava, maize, and green grams now shooting out of the ground like small green rockets, we needed to find a way to increase beehive occupancy as soon as possible to protect against the famished elephants.
But have no fear, for Loise was here, and she suggested that we hang catcher boxes in elevated tree branches adjacent to the farms. She explained that when bee colonies are looking for a new hive to call home (“swarming”), they ride air currents towards greater heights.
With this advice, we baited a beehive box with an attractant: a lovely smelling mixture of melted wax, lemon grass, vanilla, and osmom. But how do we get these hives so high up in the trees, you may ask. Well, my rock climbing and yoga skills came in handy as we climbed up trees, hauled the baited beehive boxes up, and fastened them to sturdy branches. While I had fun climbing my tree, we all agreed that our fellow intern Evans has a shot at winning Kenya a future gold medal in climbing at the 2024 Olympics.
Just two weeks have passed since we hung up the first catcher boxes, and we’ve already documented the beehive fence occupancy doubling. Hopefully these female warriors will effectively guard the farmer’s crops and lead the hungry elephants elsewhere.
The views, opinions and position expressed in this article belong solely to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy and position of Save the Elephants