Guardian Bees Protect Kenyan Crops from Roaming Elephants

By Joseph Castro | July 14, 2011 10:12 am

spacing is important

What’s the News: We’ve all probably heard the myth, made popular by Disney’s Dumbo, that elephants are afraid of mice. While that idea may not be exactly true (video), elephants do make sure to avoid another tiny critter: bees. Knowing this, zoologists from the University of Oxford loaded fences in Kenya with beehives, in hopes of deterring roaming African elephants from eating or trampling farmers’ crops. Now, two years later, the researchers are reporting in the African Journal of Ecology that the novel barriers are working wondrously and could be a viable option for protecting African croplands.

What’s the Context:

  • Oxford zoologist Lucy King first learned in 2007 that honeybees—and even just the recorded sound of their buzzing—can scare off African elephants. Although a bee stinger cannot penetrate an elephant’s thick skin, elephants learn to avoid bees because the little insects gravitate toward their eyes and the insides of their trunks. Elephants will even sound a low-frequency alarm call when they encounter bees, causing other nearby elephants to back away, too.
  • Since the U.N. banned international ivory trade in 1989, the population of the endangered African elephant has slowly made a comeback in Kenya. But the animals will often stumble upon farmland, leading to sometimes deadly conflicts with humans: a few dozen elephants and people die each year from their clashes (via Wired).
  • Researchers have tried other types of barriers, such as thorn bushes or rows of capsicum chili peppers (whose smell elephants can’t stand), but those defenses haven’t really worked, according to conservation biologist Dave Balfour.

How the Heck:

  • King and her colleagues chose a region in Kenya that often suffers from human-elephant conflicts. With the help of the local Turkana community, they built beehive fences around 17 farms and thorn-bush barriers around 17 other farms. In over two years, elephants tried to invade the farms 45 times; they successfully broke through the thorn-bush barriers 31 times, but breached the beehive fences only once.
  • Along with protected croplands, the farmers have gained extra income by selling honey. The honey money allows them to purchase new clothes and additional food.

(via Wired)

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Hans Hillewaert

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • lou

    while @ the same time, the bees help to pollinate the crops, which down the road couild potentially lead to bigger crop yields. Win/Win situation.

  • shibby

    zOMG thats crazy

  • Ann

    Great solution to the farmers’ problem. It still doesn’t address that humans are taking away elephant habitat. That’s why the elephants are going for farm crops in the first place.

  • Jockaira

    If the elephants do not develop techniques to deal with the bee-hive barriers, then the natural tendencies of the farmers will be to use the hives everywhere, and of course, to extend their territories thus leaving the elephants even less land (perhaps none) on which to forage.

    Elephants are and can be an important of an African Nation’s economy, just as are farmers, so they should be accommodated within that economy.

    The only long-term solution that addresses both issues is the demarcation of wild zones appropriate to elephant needs from which all ordinary human activity would be excluded except for necessary rangers and supervised tours. Such zones, because of their size, would likely also be appropriate for most other animal and plant species.

    This would be a win-win situation for all concerned, but the threat of burgeoning human populations is likely to make it impossible.

  • Nathan Emery

    I think it is sad that Lucy King takes credit for this when I and my colleagues (none of which are PHD’s ) carried out this project in 2006 around Mole National Park in Northern Ghana. The difference is that, one we did it first, secondly we tried to get interest in our results but both WWF and the IUCN HEC committee had no time for us as they were, at the time, concentrating on chili peppers and would not entertain “Regular Jo’s”. I guess because we didn’t go to schools like Oxford we are not worth knowing nor is our work. At any rate, Elephants have still not managed to get into the crops of those farmers we worked with and I believe the project has expanded because we taught people how to make their own hives and equipment.

  • Mos

    Wahhhh…. would you like some cheese with that wine?

  • http://DiscoverMagazine Templar 7

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Science, Nathan!!! Get used to alot of this kind of behaviors all of the time, because in this field, everybody thinks they are hot shit. It is the worst part of the job.

  • Sandra

    “The honey money allows them to purchase new clothes and additional food”

    That closing line is almost despicably trite and cliche…unless he was talking about new clothes for the bees.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar