The ancient custodians of Africa: A tribute to the bees
By Lucy Stofberg

“Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to explain the magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths?” Brian Jackman

Africa and all its wild and wonderful creatures, plants, people and landscapes are an intricate mosaic of life. We realize more and more that we cannot have one without the other. Today, on World Bee Day, we are fascinated at how these tiniest of creatures are perhaps, the enormous link to the conservation of the elephants, the livelihoods of people and the safe keeping of the trees. It all started with the discovery that elephants will avoid trees with active beehives. Although they have very thick skins on the bulk of their bodies, the bees will target their eyes, mouths and trunks. A negative experience for them no doubt, one they are not likely to forget. And that is exactly what we’re hoping for.

The Shepherds tree is an iconic sight here on the reserve – I’m sure those of you who have visited us can attest to it. They are hard to miss as they are a prominent feature in our open areas.

Some of these trees are estimated to be a couple of hundred years old! They form a deep rooted part of the history as well as the abundant biodiversity. Elephants are amongst those who enjoy feasting on them, but are often culprits in pushing them over. We have started looking into ways to try preserve some of these magnificent trees without having to put up fences.

This is where the bees come in. A breakthrough in research by the Save the Elephants foundation was made in 2002 when studies showed elephants avoided Acacia’s with active beehives on them. Dr. Lucy King tested the theory by playing recordings of a wild colony of distressed African honey bees to elephants. The sounds caused the elephants to react by vigorous headshaking, dusting and running away. Even more interestingly, they discovered a unique low frequency rumble from the elephants that seemed to be a ‘bee alarm’ call! The elephants must have remembered bees from previous negative experiences and decided it’s best to stay clear.

In Kenya, bee hive fences are being erected to peacefully stop elephants from raiding the crops of subsistence farmers, and in the process, has added honey to one of the income generating activities in the community. It has created safer spaces for both elephants and people. This concept has been spreading across Africa and is successfully reducing the conflict between the two. Another major benefit is that by providing a home for the bees, the local ecosystems are boosted with pollinators.

In South Africa, some threatened tree species are also using these diligent honey bees to deter elephants from toppling them over. Near the Kruger National Park, the foundation has hung bee hives on Marula trees, successfully keeping elephants at bay. Of the various methods tested, the bees seem to be the most successful at keeping the trees safe. Once an elephant has had a negative experience from bees, it will avoid a hive and the tree in which it hangs. Could this be a possible solution for our Shepherds trees?

South Africa is a world-renowned bee hotspot, with nearly a 1000 different species, of which one is the African honey bee. This has no doubt contributed to South Africa being a mega-diverse country. They are always a welcome sight, as they are the most efficient pollinators and ensure a resilient and healthy functioning ecosystem. As research continues and sustainable methods progress, we realize we have grossly underestimated the role of these bees. In the future, perhaps the conservation of our majestic elephants and ancient trees will lie in the safekeeping of the little honey bees.

Visit the Bees and Elephants Project for more information: