CHICAGO — For her upcoming four-month trip to Africa, Jessica Van Fleteren is far more afraid of one of the world's smallest animals than the largest one that walks on land.
After receiving a $5,000 National Geographic Young Explorers grant, the Humboldt Park resident next month is leaving for Tsavo East National Park in Kenya to document the relationship between bees and elephants.
Van Fleteren, 26, is nervous about working near elephants — and the lions, leopards and hyenas that inhabit the 5,308-square-mile national park — but she's more frightened of the aggressive bees that live there, in part because she's allergic to bee stings.
"I'm always going to have a [bee] suit on, but I'm still nervous," said Van Fleteren, a Columbia College Chicago graduate.
For the last six months, since she applied for the grant — not knowing if she would receive it — Van Fleteren has been building her immunity to bee stings with twice-weekly allergy shots. She also worked with local beekeepers, including John Bailey in Pilsen.
Van Fleteren will be taking photos for the Elephants and Bees Project, which uses invisible fences lined by bee hives to keep elephants out of farmers' crops near the border of the national park. Elephants instinctively will avoid African honey bees because of potential stings around their eyes and inside their trunks.
Van Fleteren, who works in Crate and Barrel's photo studio and also is a freelance photographer, said her pictures could be used by National Geographic. She also will be helping extract honey along the bee fences and help local villagers sell the product for a profit.
Van Fleteren fell in love with Africa after studying post-war conflict for a semester in Uganda in 2011. She previously applied four times for grants to document elephants and called receiving the Young Explorers grant "a huge relief."
"I'm so excited to get this grant," she said. "It’s not just going somewhere and taking pictures — it’s interacting with the community and promoting education and science."
For more information on Van Fleteren's project, click here. On Sunday night, Van Fleteren released a IndieGogo page to pay for her expenses not covered by the Explorers grant.
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