When it comes to the relationship between bees and African elephants, size does not matter. The massive pachyderms are terrified of bees, which can painfully sting elephants around their eyes and inside their trunks. Baby elephants are the most vulnerable to bee stings, as their skin isn’t thick enough to ward off the insects. And researchers have now found that the elephants have developed a special strategy to help them avoid these bees that scare the bejesus out of them.
When an elephant takes note of a swarm of bees, it emits a distinct rumbling call. This bee alarm, which the scientists termed a “bee rumble,” helps draw the herd’s attention to the bees and allows them to run off unharmed, the researchers write in the journal PloS ONE. What’s more, they respond to an audio recording of the bee rumble as if it were the real thing, giving farmers a tool they could potentially use to fend off unwanted elephants.
This is the first time that an alarm call for a specific threat has been identified in elephants. Lead researcher Lucy King of the University of Oxford believes that such calls may be an “emotional response” to a threat and a way to co-ordinate group movements. Ms King explained: “We discovered elephants not only flee from the buzzing sound, but make a unique rumbling call, as well as shaking their heads” [BBC]. The head-shaking looked like an attempt to fend off or dislodge the bees that the elephants assumed were buzzing around, King says.
For the study, King and her team played the recordings of the bee rumble vocalization to 10 elephant families. Six of the families immediately got up and fled, despite the fact that they had neither seen nor heard any bees. When the scientists tweaked the vocalization a bit to remove a key acoustical feature found in bee rumbles, the elephants stayed put. The researchers suggest that elephants may also have warning calls to alert their fellows to humans and lions—much like Diana monkeys in West Africa can call out a leopard alarm or eagle alarm, depending on which predator they spot [ScienceNOW].
King hopes that recordings of the bee rumble can be used by farmers to chase away elephants and keep them from trampling fields. As agriculture expands in Africa, elephants have been squeezed into tighter habitats–causing them to stray across fields and damage crops. “Farmers will do anything to keep their crops and families safe from damage, and unfortunately records of shootings, spearings, and poisonings of elephants are on the increase,” Ms King wrote on the University of Oxford’s website [BBC]. King hopes that playing back the bee rumble around fields could serve as a low-tech, humane deterrent to elephants, who will then be sent packing back into the woods.
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Image: Lucy King/Oxford University