Hive Maintenance 101
Photos and Text by Ester Eriksson
I just landed as an intern in Sagalla last week, thoroughly read up on the fascinating research and community engagement of the Elephants & Bees Project, but a complete novice in literally anything to do with beekeeping.
Quick background: The early origins of this project date back to Professor Fritz Vollrath and his research into the interactions between African elephants (Loxodonta africana) and the African honeybee (Apis mellifera scutellata) in the early 2000s. It was made clear (and is now known by most of us here, probably you too at this point, if you are reading this blog) that elephants really don’t like these supercharged bees. Dr Lucy created this project of using beehive fences to protect the precious crops that are consistently raided by hungry elephants – crops that are in many cases the sole livelihood and subsistence for the farmers in this marginalized community in Sagalla, Taita Taveta. It is proving 80% successful in deterring elephants, but it requires maintenance.
What kind of maintenance is that? You ask. I’m just about to run it down for you. I didn’t really know all the steps involved in keeping healthy occupations of bees in your hives until last week week. This work is far from installing the fence and just letting it be. This strategy of deterrence and protection – as effective as it can be – requires bee colonies and good quality hives to be successful and achieving this is very much a hands-on activity.
One of the many forms of data Elephants & Bees collect is data relating to the quality for the fences. This is valuable to evaluate what aspects of the fences are most important in deterring elephants. For example, can an unoccupied but well-positioned hive be more effective than a beehive that is occupied by a small colony, but has lost its attachment wires to the remainder of the fence? How many occupied hives are the minimum requirement for successful deterrence? And so on. This is important data that is collected consistently, regardless of if there has been a crop-raiding event or not. It is also a way for the research team to gauge the engagement and participation of the farmers – what level of investment of time and energy do they extend towards taking care of this defense system? These questions are critical to understand how integrated the project truly is with the community.
When we go out to the farms to monitor the fence quality, we record 11 main attributes:
- Occupation: are there bees or not? Main source of data to collect, as this informs opportunities for success, further assistance, or indication for honey harvest.
- Color of the beehive: brighter yellow is used to attract bees to take up residence, and hopefully also acts as a visual deterrent for elephants, too.
- Structural quality of the hive itself: functional lid and bottom, no broken structures (for e.g. honey badgers – we have seen a fair few holes seemingly punched through the hive from badgers in their fearless search for treasured honey.
- Shade: bees prefer a cooler environment than direct African sun can provide, so provision of shade is a must. This can be a plywood board or sticks with grass covering the hive (see picture above).
- Poles: Are the poles holding the wires intact? Are they erect or fallen over? Are they ruined by termites? Are live trees used still alive or dead (if so they must be replaced). A gap in the fence can easily be taken advantage of by the clever elephants.
- Wire connectivity: Is the hive connected on both sides to wires extending to the next hive? Again, this is important to ensure the swinging and activation of hives actually happens if an elephant tries to cross the farm boundary.
- Wire grease: At the end of the wires some grease should be added to keep pests such as ants or termites from walking along and infesting the hive.
- Honey badger protection (for occupied hives): Is there a cage covering the hive (see picture) or some other form of protective structure (e.g. wide metal cones around the poles to keep badger from climbing up).
- Attractant: is there water, lemongrass oil, sugar-water, or colorful flowers around to attract bees to take up residence?
- Cleanliness: is the inside of the box clean or dirty?
- Pests: are there traces of other species residing in the box (e.g. gecko eggs or ants – more on this in a later blog!) or even a live animal?
As you can see, ensuring that all of this is in place for all hives on a plot (on average roundabout 12-15 hives) is not a ten-minute job. Weather, time, predation, and infestation all work around the clock to reduce hive quality (albeit not consciously), so it is a marathon to keep them in tip top condition.
So, a hive must be supported by poles and wires of good structural integrity, they must be cleaned, cleared from pests, preferably provided attractants for bees, as well as deterrence against predators and pests.
What about different types of beehives? I know, I wondered the same. If you are deeply invested in Elephants & Bees work, you will have seen us talk about at least two different designs – Kenyan Top Bar Hives (KTBH) or Langstroth hives. At this point of the project, all new hives are Langstroth, and most KTBH have been replaced by Langstroth, as they produce a higher honey yield, are more readily occupied by colonies, and generally easier to keep.
Let’s talk about the Langstroth hives and the road to honey. They look like a rectangular box with the lid, and they are. But inside them are a number of tightly slotted in “frames” (see previous picture) that have thin wires across. Within each frame worker bees build honeycomb, supported by the wires, and produce honey. This is made easier for them if there is already some amount of beeswax present at the edge of the frame, so they do not have to start from scratch. Therefore… you guessed it: one important step of maintenance in order to attract bees to unoccupied hives involve attaching new beeswax to empty hives.
Once the hive is occupied, buzzing, and producing honey across the frames, it is the beekeeper’s job to attach the “super box” – stage 2 on the road to honey. The super box can be described as a shallower version of the original box, and it doesn’t have a bottom. In between these two boxes is placed a mesh called the queen excluder (fancy name that I have taken a liking to). The holes in this mesh are too small for the queen bee and the drones to squeeze through, meaning they are trapped in the original “brood box”. The worker bees move up through the mesh, though, and continue to produce honey in the super box. From here step 3 can be achieved: the honey can be harvested. This can now be done without disturbing the queen and her reproduction, so the beekeeper won’t have to start over with an empty hive after the harvest, which is the case in hives that don’t separate brood from workers.
Save The Elephants and our team at the Elephants & Bees Project are always operating on the foundation that successful conservation methods must be well integrated with the local people. As much as we would like to it is of little to no use for STE to come and perform all the maintenance work on behalf of the farmers when we are out monitoring. Assisting with harvest is part of our role in this collaborative project, but without affirming the role and responsibility of the farmers themselves, these measures for helping elephants will not be sustainable in the long run. The goal must always be a self-sufficient system, and therefore it is up to the farmers to put the time in and maintain their hives. What we can do and do do is support them in that endeavor, by providing material, training, and knowledge.
There is still a lot for me – and perhaps you, too – to learn about beekeeping and honey harvesting, but hopefully this info made you feel a bit more informed, as it did for me.
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