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African Honey Bees protecting trees at Ulusaba

At Virgin Limited Edition, we are grateful to have passionate beekeepers in our family who take a lot of care to nurture local bees and their habitats at three of our properties, Ulusaba in South Africa, Mahali Mzuri in Kenya and Kasbah Tamadot in Morocco.

With the arrival of World Bee Day on 20th May 2022, we are shining the spotlight on the amazing African Honey Bees at Ulusaba, our safari game lodge in the Sabi Sand Reserve.

We recently caught up with Head Beekeeper and Operations Manager at Ulusaba, Chris Schoombie, and this is what he had to say about the progress of the project so far, how the bees are helping to protect the trees and what he enjoys the most about beekeeping.

Chris, tell us a bit about how and when the bee conservation project started at Ulusaba?
We started a project with Plan B in 2020 to test the effectiveness of beehives as tree protection methods against elephant impact. I introduced two types of beehives – a top bar and a normal longstroth beehive. Elephants normally ring bark the tree and then it dies. All the ‘top bar’ that we have introduced for the last couple of years have not been touched by elephants.

Elephant Alive’ is an organisation that’s currently busy with the same project but for a much longer period. They have had a 82% success rate after six years. A similar project was launched in Maasai Mara in Kenya where they introduced beehives to protect crops from elephants, they tried everything else but failed.

What has the project achieved so far?
Currently, we have 15 hives across the property with four of them occupied. We have already harvested about ten kilograms of honey with those four hives. In addition, moving beehives form structures at the lodges and re-locating them has been a great success.

What type of bees inhabit the hives?
The African Honey Bee.

What type of flowers or plants do the bees like the most?
In the summer time, the one tree that stands out is the Marula tree and a variety of fauna.

Who is overseeing the project and how do they nurture and protect the bees?
As Ulusaba's Head Beekeeper, I oversee it with the help of several of our team members when they are available. We will inspect the hives every six weeks in the summer for any threats – wax moth or beetles for example.

Winter time sees less threats but ants then become a problem. During this period, we also check if the hive has grown and needs additional space for honey production.

What do you enjoy the most about beekeeping?
It is amazing to observe the bees bringing in the pollen and nectar, seeing them building new comb and the interaction involved.

The hive is growing each year and people don’t realise what goes in to making honey – a bee lives less than 40 days, visits at least 1,000 flowers and produces less than a teaspoon of honey. For us it's only a teaspoon of honey, but for a bee it’s a life. And all the bees are females, the drones are the only males used for mating and scouting.

From birth each bee has variety of duties: although worker bees have a very short lifespan (only roughly 40 days!), in her short life, a worker bee will take on all of these different roles: housekeeper, nurse, attendant to the queen, architect, ventilator, guard and finally, forager.

Bees are old world insects – How amazing is that!

What have been your proudest achievements with the bees so far?
Seeing our bee population here growing from a little hive to a thousand strong. From nothing to different sections that they created (nursery, brood and honey production).

Using everything that’s in the hive – honey, wax and propolis. They are truly amazing creatures!

Why are the bees so important to the local environment?
There is the big one of course, pollination but then also as mentioned earlier, for us they play a key role in the bee elephant project.

In general around South Africa, the seven billion a year fruit industry has come under threat. The decline in pollinators is a result of many environmental challenges such as change in habitat, loss of floral resources, pesticides, pests and growing effect of climate change.

People need to know what these little creatures means to the world and its population.

What are your future plans for the bees and the hive?
Hopefully the hives will increase and we will start honey production. The end goal will be to make our honey available in our Curio shop to guests and increase our bee population.

Can you share any fun facts about bees?
Honey was revered in ancient Egypt, and until recently the oldest honey in the world was indeed found in an Egyptian tomb. That 3,000 years old honey had been placed in honey pots in the tomb of deceased pharoah, King Tutankhamun, to keep him happy on his celestial journey to the afterlife.

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