Using Bees to Protect Elephants and Farmers
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there were as many as 3-5 million African elephants in the 1930s and 1940s. However, due to loss of habitat and poachers seeking ivory and meat, elephant populations in Africa have significantly decreased.
Elephants are often the main attractions at zoos and circuses, and are one of the must-see animals for anyone on a safari vacation, but they can be a dangerous menace to African villagers who must coexist with them. The elephant’s size is matched by its appetite, which drives them to raid crops grown by subsistence farmers. These conflicts can be deadly for both, as villagers and elephants clash over food.
Electric fences aren’t feasible in many areas due to lack of electricity, and other types of fences are also ineffective against such large, hungry creatures. However, researchers and conservationists may have found a simple solution — bee hives.
Unlike bears, which plunder bee nests for honey and comb without fear, elephants are known to avoid trees with beehives. Although elephant skin is 2.5 centimeters thick, they can still be stung in areas around their eyes and inside their trunks, which can be extremely painful.
Using this knowledge, researchers have discovered ways to use elephants’ fear of bees to protect them. The first is the “Beehive Fence” — a line of beehives set about ten meters apart that are linked with ropes or wires. When an elephant touches the ropes, the hives swing, the bees emerge, and the elephants retreat. In addition to providing protection from the elephants, villagers benefit from increased pollination of their crops, and they can harvest the honey as an added source of income (if they choose to use honey bees).
According to the Elephants and Bees Project, a collaboration between Save the Elephants, Oxford University, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, “We have field tested this Beehive Fence design in three rural farming communities in Kenya with over 85% success rate in all locations. Any type of beehive can be used although our project focuses on using Kenyan Top Bar Hives and Langstroth Hives as they swing efficiently in the Beehive Fence and provide optimum honey yields for the farmers. Beehive Fences are cheap to construct costing approximately $150 to $500 per 100m depending on what types of beehives are used.”
They have even written a Beehive Fence Construction Manual to show villagers how to build the fences.
Another possible method which has not been tried yet (to the best of our knowledge) wouldn’t even require bees. In 2010, researchers discovered that the mere sound of disturbed bees was enough to cause elephants to retreat. To test this, the researchers used loudspeakers to play audio recordings of disturbed bees, which also caused the elephants to retreat, as the following video shows:
In addition, they noticed that the elephants produced “distinctive ‘rumble’ vocalizations in response to bee sounds” — a warning to other elephants that they were in danger. When they played audio recordings of the elephant ‘rumble’ warnings, they also observed elephants leaving the area.
Theoretically, audio recordings of bees and of the elephant warning signals might deter elephants from areas where crops are grown (if, of course, electricity is available to play the sounds).
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