Beekeeper's sting operation is a buzz kill for pesky tuskers
Learning about an elephant's weakness gave him a brainwave that is saving trees across SA
One man’s quest to save the bees has led to a solution to a much bigger problem – keeping the elephant out of the proverbial doghouse.
Bees In Trees For Elephants is an initiative beekeeper Angus Hudson, 63, started after months of experimenting with beehives in game parks across SA.
Elephants are known for their destructive behaviour, which is exacerbated by a shrinking habitat bringing them increasingly into contact with humans.
Male elephants become especially aggressive during their musth, a period of about three months in which the testosterone of bulls increases. This leads to bulls taking out their aggression on their surroundings, often uprooting trees, clearing vegetation, bulldozing cars or charging at people.
Hudson said this leaves national parks with two options: cull or move the herd.
“Obviously these are drastic and very costly measures.”
But Hudson said elephants stay away from beehives.
The tips of their trunks and their ears are extremely sensitive, especially to bee stings, and once an elephant learns of a nearby hive it will do its best to avoid that area.
There is a science behind it: elephants’ brains are oriented towards sensory motor stimulation (vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch). Despite having three times the number of neurons humans do their brains are less concerned with thinking and more sensitive to stimulation. Their trunks and ears also have more nerve fibres than any equivalent organ in the human body.
So when they are stung they feel the pain acutely, and develop a fear of being stung. Rangers have said that even the sound of bees is enough to scare off a herd of elephants.
Hudson first made this connection when he noticed that in parks where he hung his hives the tree ecosystem remained intact or untouched by elephants.
Bees In Trees For Elephants proposes placing catchboxes (hives not used for collecting honey) in strategic areas to create invisible environmentally friendly barriers between elephants and humans or elephants and trees that are also good for bees.
Catchboxes differ from hives in that they are created as homes for bees. Unlike in hives, there is no extra storage room. The boxes are placed on trees or fences, on paths elephants might take near populated areas such as watering holes or homesteads.
“The real problem is the destruction of their habitat. The males can destroy around 2,000 established trees a year, leaving behind vast savanna areas. Most parks are completely overstocked with elephants because their territories are getting smaller.”
Hudson noticed calves emulate their parents by testing their strength against smaller shrubs.
“Trees just cannot cope and the ecology is immediately affected. The losses extend to birds, insects, food for the birds or other animals, rodents living in the trees, and in turn the birds of prey who feed on them.
“There are also browsers [animals who feed on leaves] who use the shade of trees and their dung then creates another ecosystem. And once a tree has been downed insects will then be attracted to the decomposition, so really the repercussions are widespread.”
From broker to beekeeper
Hudson was a short-term insurance broker from Riverclub, Johannesburg when he fell in love with the bee industry in 2002.
In 2012 he became a fulltime honey producer and started his own company, Zubbee’s Honey. It has about 200 hives producing about three of the 2,800 tons of honey nationally a year.
“There is a huge demand for honey and we [SA] still have to import a further 3,000 tons a year to satisfy the shortfall.”
Catchboxes are empty when they are first placed, but migrating bees soon find them.
“The elephants are so smart that they have learnt the shape of the box and won’t go near them, but only once they have been stung.”
There have been successes in Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth, Jejane Private Nature Reserve in Hoedspruit, Madikwe Game Reserve in the North West, and the Kruger National Park.
“The solutions to our elephant problem and the problem of our bees disappearing doesn’t have to cost money. We need to start with educating people about bees, what they do for the environment, and that they can be a source of income for people in poor communities around our reserves.”
North West Parks acting head for conservation Pieter Nel said they plan to extend the project to developing communities around game parks.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for these communities to potentially become beekeepers and make some money.
“Elephants impact vegetation, specifically trees like amarulas. We use bees to deter them from overutilising sensitive areas or ecosystems and trees we would like to retain ... And if we can create social economic advantages for the surrounding communities then it’s a win-win situation.”