Welcoming our first bee colonies – elephants beware! By Kylie Butler (PhD Candidate)

With beehive fence construction almost complete for the first stage of our research site in Dewagiriya Village, Sri Lanka, the time has come for the event we’ve all been eagerly awaiting – introducing bees into their new homes. A bee has many tasks to fulfil as it is: protecting the queen, foraging and gathering pollen, making their delicious honey to name but a few… our bees can add defending homes and crops from elephants to their list of duties. Let’s hope it’s a task they excel at!

 An elephant footprint in a home garden

An elephant footprint in a home garden

Our beehive fence farmers have been very keen for this day to arrive – most have been looking after their fence structure dutifully – making sure posts are straight, hives are clean and shade roofs are repaired after heavy rain or wind. Having bees to look after increases the incentive to look after the fence – plus, they can finally begin to learn some beekeeping skills, and as time goes on, learn to harvest honey for their own medicinal and culinary benefits, and to earn some additional income from selling the bees delicious wares.

  Teaching farmers how to transfer bees into the hives on their fences

 Teaching farmers how to transfer bees into the hives on their fences

And for everyone involved, and the prime motivation for constructing this research site, we will soon start to learn if the Asian elephants will indeed avoid the Asian honeybees, just as their African cousins do. Learning how the Asian elephants respond to the beehive fence will provide vital information as to how best to manage and develop this technique in Asia, and what role it could potentially play in alleviating human-elephant conflict here. Ideally, we would like to attract bees naturally from the wild, however to get the ball rolling, our lucky first farmers will each have 3 – 4 colonies transferred into the hives hanging on their fence. Our first delivery of colonies arrived from Colombo last week and it was a great learning experience for everyone involved in bee handling to transfer the buzzing families into their new hanging homes. We now have 3 fences with occupied hives, and another 5 fences to go in the next fortnight.

 Teaching farmers how to transfer bees into the hives on their fences

Teaching farmers how to transfer bees into the hives on their fences

Elephant activity has been high in Dewagiriya in recent weeks – with the first crop season of the year over, most farmers have stacks of 50 kg rice bags stored in their homes, plus they are already planting for the next season. Elephants are coming up to the homes attracted by the rice they know is stored within. Several incidents have occurred, where elephants have entered gardens destroying banana and coconut plants before being scared away, posts of unoccupied beehive fences have been knocked down. Most devastating of all, the house of one young couple with a small baby was almost completely destroyed after elephants raided their property twice in one week. Unfortunately, this type of event is not an isolated occurrence, and emphasises strongly why it is so vital to help farmers devise means of protecting their homes and crops.

 A bull elephant observed in Wasgamuwa National Park. The lumps evident on his side commonly occur as a result of gunshot or other wounds inflicted by farmers trying to defend their crops.

A bull elephant observed in Wasgamuwa National Park. The lumps evident on his side commonly occur as a result of gunshot or other wounds inflicted by farmers trying to defend their crops.

Let’s hope the beehive fences, full of our little guardians of nature, can also become the guardians these farmers need to keep their families and livelihoods safer at nights.

 Twice in one week, an elephant visited this home at night while the family were sleeping inside - breaking down the entire wall to try and access rice harvest stored inside

Twice in one week, an elephant visited this home at night while the family were sleeping inside - breaking down the entire wall to try and access rice harvest stored inside

I extend a huge thankyou to the Rufford Small Grants for Nature Foundation, Chester Zoo Conservation Grant, Elephant Action League and Phoenix Zoo Conservation and Science Grant for their financial support, without which this project would not be possible. Sincerest thanks also go to collaborating partners The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, Save the Elephants and Professor M. Wijayagunawardane (University of Peradeniya) for all of their valuable input and assistance.