Beehive fences go to Lewa
Field Report from E&B Mobile Unit Education Officer, Naiya Raja
Simon’s gate, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
Last month, the Elephants and Bees Mobile Unit Team hustled and bustled our beehives, packed the vehicles with supplies, and ventured up to Lewa, north of the foothills of Mount Kenya. A catalyst for Kenyan conservation, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy has provided a secure habitat for multiple wildlife species, helping provide creative solutions for community conservation in Northern Kenya. With their hugely successful rhino conservation model, they are now protecting over 12% of Kenya’s eastern black rhino population and offer safe sanctuary for other endangered species (https://www.lewa.org). Although the perimeter of the conservancy is almost entirely fenced, connective zones and corridors between Lewa and the adjacent wildlife areas enable wildlife to move between these habitats.
Elephants’ intelligence is well-known and documented, yet their remarkable cognitive abilities continue to astound researchers. Even Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described elephants as animals that “surpass others in wit and mind”, and most times it’s difficult to argue against this. There have been reported cases where bull elephants have snapped fencing wire, pushed poles over, and even crawled beneath the electric wires in attempts to get to ‘the other-side’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxBTUyzVs_I (Lewa Conservancy 2017). Some research has also shown that elephants have learnt that their tusks do not conduct electricity, often using these to deliberately break fence wire (Mutinda et al., 2014). This tends to result in costly fence-damage and time-intensive repair work, and once elephants have broken through the fences, they often crop-raid neighbouring community farmland.
Building beehive fences
In 2018 the Elephants and Bees Mobile Unit launched with the goals of helping build coexistence capacity at other elephant-conflict areas in Kenya. In partnership with friends at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the team is now trialing beehive fences as a possible method to help protect the two lines of existing fencing (Hedgehog and 12-strand) at Simon’s gate, at the boundary of the Ngare Ndare Forest. It has been identified as a hotspot for elephant activity, possibly due to a trio of factors: a river source, the proximity of lush forest cover, and the allure of nearby farmland.
On the morning of the 5th February, we trundled up to the road to Simon’s gate (altitude 2300m), feeling sorry for our Landys’ wheels as we grated up the rocky terrain. We were kick-started by the fresh and chilly mountain air, stunned by the beauty of the landscape. Arriving at the site, we saw first-hand the damage to the fence after (at least) 8 elephants broke through the night before. It was strong evidence reiterating the reasons for the fence trial, and we quickly started construction-work. Build-day included erecting a 300-meter fence-line, which consisted of hanging 15 beehives and 15 dummy hives between fencing posts, then – inter-linking them with binding wire.
The 14-hour field-day concluded with the relocation of two occupied Langstroth hives (hung in trees nearby – to encourage wild bee occupation). This was a suiting-up job that required careful coordination, waiting for the sun to set, and the cool safety of darkness. When disturbed, African honeybees can be painfully aggressive, and moving active hives can quickly turn dangerous. However, the experienced bee-team; Ewan Brennan, Emmanuel Mwambingu, Wilson Lelukumani, and Francis Kobia, carried the job out with unrivaled expertise. Lurking in a nearby bush, I was transfixed. Mesmerized by their quiet efficiency and enduring patience, working to the loud and buzzing soundtrack of thousands of bees. I was filled with admiration for my team and fixated by the beauty of beekeeping teamwork.
Coexistence learning lessons
Beehive fences™ have demonstrated effectiveness with helping mitigate the impact of elephant-conflict for both humans and elephants. In the past, the main application for beehive fences has been the enclosed protection of smallholder farms, and this is the first pilot study using a line of linked beehives to fortify existing boundary protection in Lewa. It will be interesting to test its application as a potential electric-fence buffer and third-line of protection in an elephant-conflict area.
Through extensive research, with an emphasis on solid evidence and data collection, the Elephants and Bees team are hoping to understand other applications for bees as an eco-deterrent. The discovery that elephants have adverse reactions towards bees (Dr. Lucy King, 2010 DPhil. Research) https://elephantsandbees.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/5-King-2010-Elephants-and-Bees-DPhil-Thesis.pdf has led to other innovative field applications; including successful experiments using bees to protect precious Marula trees in the Kruger national park, South Africa (Spearheaded by the trailblazing Dr Michelle Henley, Elephants Alive https://elephantsalive.org/science/bees-and-trees/).
Since the Mobile Unit team embarked on this mission, we are growing our understanding of HEC mitigation strategies in Kenya, learning more on how to coordinate a thoughtful and tailored mobile outreach when assisting new conflict sites. Through my lens, what is becoming increasingly more clear is that each story is unique; each individual farmer, community, wildlife and landscape, so different. The dynamism and diversity in HEC experiences make this purpose challenging, and exciting. Fostering strong bonds with our partners and getting to meet some incredible movers and shakers in conservation has been just one incredible part of this journey. Each Elephants and Bees Mobile Unit experience and collaboration includes a world of firsts, and this one was no exception – steepening our steadily climbing learning-curve.
Cook, R. M., Parrini, F., King, L. E., Witkowski, E. T. F., Henley, M. D. (2018) African honeybees as a mitigation method for elephant impact on trees, Biological Conservation, 217: 329-336
Elephants and Bees Website: elephantsandbees.com
King, L. E. (2010) The interaction between the African elephant (Loxodonta africana africana) and the African honey bee (Apis Mellifera scutellata) and its potential application as an elephant deterrent. DPhil thesis. University of Oxford, UK
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy Website: https://www.lewa.org
Nyumba, T. (2008) Coping with human elephant conflict in Laikipia, Kenya, MPhil thesis. University of Cambridge, UK
Mutinda, M., Chenge, G., Gakuya, F., Otiende, M., Omondi, P., Kasiki, S., Soriguer, R., Alasaad, S. (2014) Detusking Fence-Breaker elephants as an approach in human-elephant-conflict mitigation, PLOS One
Photos by Naiya Raja