The Elephant, the Bee and a Tree: A Local Field Guide’s hobby, transformed into Babanango’s latest conservation project

Nestled in the heart of Zululand, Babanango Game Reserve stands as a beacon of conservation innovation, showcasing one of Southern Africa’s most ambitious rewilding projects. Over the years, significant strides have been made, including the official reintroduction of the Big Five, with the majestic African elephant being one of the reserve’s most recent additions.

These elephants are revered as keystone species. Their presence echoes across the reserve, shaping the landscape and nurturing biodiversity. Beyond their iconic stature, these gentle giants play a vital role in maintaining open spaces for other wildlife and act as wandering gardeners, dispersing seeds across the wilderness through their dung.

However, concerns have been raised about the potential impact of elephants on the reserve’s vegetation. Within Babanango’s expansive 20,000 hectares, elephants face challenges to their natural migrations, which could potentially lead to ecosystem degradation if left unaddressed.

Recognising the delicate balance required for their conservation and the maintenance of the reserve’s sensitive ecosystem, Graham Adams, a Babanango field guide and passionate advocate for both elephants and plants, proposed a unique solution that could strike a balance between their coexistence.

Introducing the “Bees on Babanango” project

Through the strategic placement of beehives in trees across the reserve, inspired by the successful strategies of the non-profit Elephants Alive, Graham and his team are able to protect vegetation due to elephants possessing a strong aversion to bees.

Elephants, instinctively wary of the bees and the painful sting they can inflict, steer clear of these areas, protecting the trees from damage while nurturing the flourishing bee colonies.

Babanango recognises the vital role of honeybees in ecological balance in the reserve itself, and with declining bee populations worldwide, the project helps contribute towards a solution.

In the reserve’s recent honey harvest in February of this year, approximately 5.5 kilograms of honey and 1 kilogram of beeswax were collected from one hive. The honey was bottled for sale to Babanango guests, while the beeswax was used to create handmade candles and balms infused with local medicinal plants.

Despite the challenges of the crush-and-strain method, efforts are made to ensure sustainable honey harvesting. This is crucial considering the fact that a single bee produces less than 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its six-week lifespan after visiting up to 63,000 flowers!

This project has quietly been ticking over in the background for two years, with Graham’s care and devotion, and these exciting results have not come without their fair share of challenges. Some have included:

  • Adapting the project to Babanango’s unique landscape and climate.
  • Keeping a million bees happy through cold winters and hot summers.
  • Little critters like ants, mice and hive beetles who quite fancied the hives.

Looking ahead

The Babanango bee project aims to expand its beeswax product line while continuing to contribute to conservation efforts and community engagement. The long-term vision and dream include maintaining over 100 hives across Babanango Game Reserve, supporting biodiversity, and providing a unique guest experience.

Through ongoing monitoring and evaluation, the project also seeks to contribute valuable insights into elephant management strategies and bee population health in the wider Southern African context.

As Graham aptly puts it, “I am excited to continue this endeavour, being part of the dynamic Babanango family, not only redefining elephant conservation in Zululand but also harnessing the power of nature’s interconnectedness leading to innovative and sustainable solutions for conservation challenges.”