African bees and Maasai Women

African bees and Maasai women helps the conservation of Maasai Mara

Student: Katrine Hansen Lemming

Program: MSc., Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University

Supervisor: Senior Researcher Per Kryger, Department of Agroecology - Entomology and Plant Pathology, Professor Volker Loeshkhe Department of Bioscience, Genetics, Ecology and Evolution, Aarhus University.

External supervisor: Jesper Stagegaard, CEO Ree Park and Chairman of the Board, Karen Blixen Camp Ltd. Kenya.

Period: Master's Thesis December 2015

In Maasai Mara more and more vegetation disappears. This is due to many factors such as grazing pressure from wildlife as well as domesticated animals, including Maasai goats, sheep and cows. In addition, the Maasai villages are built up of clay, which skeletons consist of trees of the savannah. Wood is also used for firewood, and especially acacias are useful as protection against wild around the villages. The vegetation therefore disappears rapidly and it has serious consequences for the Maasai Mara ecosystem.


In the summer and autumn of 2014, I went to Kenya as a biological master student to do my fieldwork on African bees. I had been extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to settle in Maasai Mara for four months. From here I had the opportunity to work with the local Maasai women. Together with a fellow student, and in cooperation with Ree Park Safari I a bee school at one of the camps in the area, Karen Blixen Camp. Here, the local women have the opportunity to learn about sustainable beekeeping, which in future can have a positive influence on the Maasai Mara ecosystem.


Historically, the Maasai people used to harvest honey from wild African bees. True to tradition, they would go out into the darkness of night wearing absolutely nothing and only carrying smoking elephant droppings to numb the bees' aggressiveness. Impressively, they show no pain at stings, which you even through several layers of clothing can experience many of. Over time they have probably developed a form of immunity to the stings, as only a few shows allergic reactions. It has therefore been an event that has been performed regularly. For the same reason, there was a good chance to get the Maasai people to play a role when it came to the conservation of vegetation.


With my biology glasses on, it was not difficult to see the consequences of the Maasai people’s brutal honey harvest. Despite the cultural aspects of the Maasai people’s honey harvest, which in itself is very interesting, this activity affects the well-being of the bees, and in larger and more abstract features even the vegetation of the savannah.


The idea of a bee school in Karen Blixen Camp is to educate the local Maasai women in keeping bees in hives and harvest the honey in a sustainable way. The incentive for the Maasais to keep bees rather than to harvest from the wild bee nests is the extra income they fetch by selling out of their honey harvest. In addition, the Maasai people mainly use natural remedies to cure diseases. Honey also has a natural medical impact, and through beekeeping there access to honey will be easier. Furthermore, African bees, which are particularly aggressive, can be used as protection against wild animals. Both lions and elephants are afraid of bees and will stay away.


The biological incentive is that bees are extremely important for the ecosystem and perform about 80% of the pollination worldwide. Every time a colony is disturbed and gets their nest destroyed, they use much energy to escape and build a new nest a more peaceful place. Sometimes colonies even die when Maasais from time to time burn the bee nests during honey harvest to avoid being stung too much. However, the main incentive is to generate interest in the conservation of the resources promoting honey production. This means that in connection with a biological interest in preserving the Maasai Mara vegetation, it might be possible to raise the Maasais’ interest in taking better care of the vegetation on the savannah and maybe even to plant new trees. The more flourishing vegetation found on the savannah, the greater the honey harvest will be. This way, it will be possible to incorporate the local community in the conservation project, and the locals will then be a big part of the preservation of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.


The first group of Maasai women have now received their training in sustainable beekeeping. Hopefully, the future will offer more experienced women, who can help to preserve the beautiful harmony of animals and humans in the Maasai Mara and the Maasai Mara's unique ecosystem.