The battle for honey, a fight between beekeepers and honey badgers, escalated drastically during the 1900s as the need for commercial beekeeping intensified. A Red Data species in Southern Africa, the Honey Badger or “honey devourer” according to its Latin name Mellivora capensis, is a clever animal and rather strong for its medium size. Coupled with its character traits of endurance and persistence, and traditionally known as the world’s meanest and most fearless animal, it is not surprising that the honey badger is capable of considerable damage to the honey industry. This then was the reason for extensive badger killings during the last century. But conservation efforts and solutions turned the honey badger’s plight around, and today the species is an example of successful conservation.
South Africa’s honey industry
With average annual earnings of R3.2 billion (approximately 25.6 billion US$), the honey industry in South Africa is a notable industry. The industry is showing plenty of room for growth as the national demand for honey is not nearly met. Added to this, South Africa’s world renowned floral kingdoms allow for the ideal environment for a blossoming honey industry. The industry has many added benefits. Although employment opportunities are vast (and much-needed for South Africa’s struggle with unemployment), it is particularly the ecological services which cannot be rated highly enough. Beekeepers have central roles in agriculture and biodiversity, with pollination and biodiversity protection being a services of irreplaceable value.
With the last century’s boom in the honey industry, honey badgers increasingly raiding beehives as easily accessible food sources, despite their generally carnivores feeding habits. But this meant that the beehive was often left destroyed and the honey spoilt – leaving the beekeeper without produce. And as a result, bee farmers increasingly applied lethal methods to kill any honey badger that came into sight. Despite the formal registration of honey badgers as protected animal species in South Africa, the killings rapidly increased. The lack of governmental enforced species protection, despite the badger’s listing as Near Threatened in the South Africa Red Data Book for Mammals, together with the slow reproduction rate of a single cub every 18 months, caused badger population numbers to plunge.
Research on badger behaviour in beekeeping areas, showed that beehives on ground level, and placed within indigenous vegetation, were specific targets to honey-badger raids. Conservationists had to pull out all the stops – the honey badger or ratel as it is known locally, is not a particularly loved weasel. How do you protect such a human-shy species, a species traditionally considered as an unfriendly pest, and a species with little economic potential?
The need for conservation prevailed. Honey badger resistant beehives were developed, and after many trails and errors, this proved to be the badger’s saving grace. Today, advice to beekeepers are to either raise their hives beyond the typical badger’s reach, or secure beehives through metal protection and pegging, making it almost impossible for the badger to reach the inside of the hive. Although different from the traditional wooden hive, these robust hives with metal protection are indeed badger resistant. Both methods provide protection for hives from visiting honey badgers and are cost-effective for the beekeeper. Applying these honey badger resistance protection measures offer added economic benefits – honey badger-friendly honey. Today, the industry proudly markets “honey badger-friendly” honey nationwide, allowing the consumer to choose an environmentally responsible product.
In 2002, the Endangered Wildlife Trust established the Badger-Friendly Initiatives and continues to work together between producers, retailers and the public to continue the success of honey badgers (and the honey industry!). Public outcry and response to the near threatening of the honey-badger took the initiative one step further: national accreditation of badger-friendly honey and identification of these products by means of a “badger-friendly” logo on honey products. The honey industry is reporting improved sales for the beekeepers that have adopted the formal badger-friendly declaration and associated labels – a clear incentive for continued conservation!
Finally, although conservationists are keeping a close eye on the species, the honey badger is starting to taste sweet success as the population numbers continue to climb again.
Photo credits: some rights reserved by dirtykoala and Ian n. White via flickr