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Bees Do It!

Updated: Jun 22

I am just back from an awesome Safari experience in Kenya. As I have said many times, people think that this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but I can confidently say it is not! Africa gets under your skin…besides the animals, it’s the people that have you coming back again and again.

I was at Kipalo Hills, part of Secluded Africa, located in a 36,000-acre private Conservancy called Mbulia on the border of Tsavo West, but very close to Tsavo East, as well. I was perched up on a rocky outcropping in a traditional tent with my bucket showers, which is how I imagine safaris should be. But Kipalo offers glam villas too, even though the entire camp runs on sustainable solar power. There are many dreamy things about Kipalo, one is the million star canopy at night and then catching glimpses of the iconic Kilimanjaro during the day. On our game drives here, I have never seen so many elephants, I swear one day we saw at least 300 and so many babies. It heartened me; as so many headlines are about the loss of elephants due to persistent human conflict.

No matter how many times I see them up close, I still get chills, they awe me. Elephants are so very complex, they are intelligent, the socialization in their family herds, the compassion shown to one another, their multilevel communications and vocalizations. These goliaths communicate with low-frequency rumbles, called infrasounds, that can travel more than a mile. And their fearlessness to protect their babies. Now researchers are saying they have “names” for one another. I love being in their world. Kenya’s elephants have traditionally been free to traverse through and between its 23 national parks to find food and water, and roam over the border into Tanzania and back.

Elephants, the largest land mammal weighing multiple tons are voracious eaters consuming about 600 to 800 pounds of vegetation a day. And many find small farm crops irresistible and an easy all you can eat buffet. They can eat an entire harvest in one day, causing farmers to resort to killing the animal in desperation to save their crops. Let’s be honest, many in the surrounding communities are subsistence farmers squeezing out a living to feed their family. This living on the edge makes them vulnerable to poaching for food to feed their families or worse make them easy targets for cartels looking for rhino horns or tucks which hurts everyone. African farmers have had an arsenal for tools to turn back elephants on midnight crop raids like guns, firecrackers, spears, rocks and dogs to join the fight. This is not always successful. And these farmers, cannot afford electric fences….which sometime can’t even stand up to 7 tons of hungry.

As guests coming to go on safari game drives, we may not delve into the actual workings of how they maintain these precious wilds. Here, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the amount of work it takes to keep these wide-open spaces for migrating corridors.  At Mbulia Conservancy there is a twelve-man team of dedicated rangers who day in, and day out fill water holes, patrol fence lines, stealthfully manage anti-poaching, removal of snares, and interact with the local community to ensure human and animal conflict is minimized. There is a lot of care is given to solving everyday issues of living in a wild place.

 One of my eureka moments was the explanation of one possible solution. Elephants hate bees. African bees are especially aggressive finding sensitive spots to attack; like around the eyes, ears and even up their trunks. Ellies don’t forget that kind of pain. They even run from the sound of a drone, which sounds pretty close to a swarm of bees. People observed that elephants steer clear of trees that have feral bee hives. Thus, bee keeping could be used as a deterrent for elephants. Hives may be a solution that farmers can afford without harming the elephants. Like other intuitive land managers in Kenya, Mbulia have instituted this natural and cleaver resolution. From simple log hives in the fields of the farmers to stringing beehives along fences.

There are so many benefits. The advantages of honey, besides replacing sugar, it has multiple nutritious and healing qualities: controlling cholesterol, blood pressure levels, diabetes, boosting immunity, providing energy and antioxidants. Honeybees are natural pollinators and can help increase crop yields. There are also the sales on honey and beeswax for candles adding a new income stream for families. They are brilliant little creatures that work constantly and do it all themselves. Luckily, they multiply like crazy, like I said, Bees Do It. When they get too crowded farmers can split their hives up which creates even more hives. It is a "gift that keeps on giving" because you can sell the new hives for a pretty nice profit.

And it costs almost nothing! The hive can be created by hollowing out a log, attaching wooden access doors on each side, and boring entry holes in the wood for the bees to come and go, then hang from wire or rope. All you need is the healthy plump Queen, who lays 1500 to 2000 eggs a day. Whether you buy her or her swarm elects her, you are on your way. A healthy singular hive is home to around 60,000 honeybees – the majority being female worker bees and only few male bees. The male bees do not have stingers, nor do they assist with the upkeep of the hive. Their only purpose is to potentially mate with the queen once a year. Afterward, she can dictate not only the number of eggs she lays, but the gender of the eggs as well. About 1,500 bees die naturally from old age every day and are removed from the hive by worker bees. They are immediately replaced by the nearly 2,000 eggs which the queen will lay each day.  An amazing fact is the honeybee's antennae performs a multitude of functions that help them survive and prosper. The antennae is used as a nose for smelling, touching, tasting, making vibrations, and detecting heat sensitivity, as well as navigation & communication. If you can believe it, bees use their antennae to detect the Earth’s magnetic field. This helps them determine position and direction – even within the darkness of the hive. Returning from foraging bees do a dance to share the location of rich food sources. Talk about complexities!

Hence, a bee’s world is just as complex as the elephant, but just 3,000 times smaller, both are critical to our environment and the ecology. So, it seems that the bees and elephants can work together, though at a distance, to solve problems.

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