African elephants migrate across large areas of land for forage and sustenance and cannot easily be contained within national parks. Their roaming behaviour means that they come into frequent contact with farmers outside protected areas. Arable farms are an easy source of nutritious food, and crop-raiding by elephants is a serious problem which threatens farmers’ lives and livelihoods.
Elephants are difficult to deter owing to their size and intelligence. Effective measures such as electric fences are unaffordable for ordinary farmers, who can be driven to drastic action such as shooting or poisoning elephants. Cheap, workable solutions to the problem of crop-raiding are needed – and bees have provided unexpected assistance.
Anecdotal evidence from local people had suggested that African elephants have an aversion to bees, but Professor Fritz Vollrath, Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton (CEO of the charity ‘Save the Elephants’) and Dr Lucy King were the first to investigate and identify this behaviour formally. The researchers found that elephants respond with alarm to the buzz of aggressive bees and quickly move away from the sound source. They also emit a low frequency rumble that warns other elephants in the area to retreat, and engage in head-shaking and dusting, behaviours that may help to prevent bee stings. Further research with Dr Joseph Soltis, a bioacoustics expert from Disney's Animal Kingdom, suggests that elephants may make specific and different rumbles to warn of humans and of bees.
These discoveries broke new ground and encouraged the researchers to develop and test a novel application: could fences hung with beehives be used to prevent crop-raiding by elephants? Promising results from a small pilot study encouraged them to set up a larger study on 34 Kenyan farms. Over two years, 45 elephant raids were monitored, but only one incident of an elephant crossing a beehive fence was recorded.
Farmers and wildlife managers in Kenya and other parts of Africa have been quick to show interest in this innovative but simple idea. A free, downloadable manual written by Dr King has helped to promote the idea widely. It describes how to construct an effective fence using low-tech, straightforward methods and materials that can be obtained locally. Building on field trials in several countries, beehive fences have now been implemented widely across swathes of Southern and Eastern Africa.
In Kenya, the influential Kenyan Wildlife Service has included beehive fences as a mitigation strategy in their Conservation and Management Strategy for the Elephant. In Uganda, a well-established project, Malaika Honey, supports local farmers to build beehive fences and trains them in beekeeping skills. In Tanzania, UNESCO has funded a beehive fence project in response to increased human-elephant conflict and a rise in elephant deaths.
The most obvious benefit to farmers is better crop production and improved food security through reduced damage from raids. In 2013 one subsistence farmer in the Western Serengeti reported that a beehive fence had helped him achieve his first proper surplus for 18 years, enabling him to consider moving to business farming. There is a second benefit, too, in the sales of ‘elephant-friendly’ honey and other bee products.
The simple strategy of pitting one of Africa’s smaller creatures against its largest has thus led to real improvements for farmers vulnerable to the destructive power of elephants.
Research funded by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, ESRC/NERC, the St Andrews Prize for the Environment, The Future for Nature Award, the Rufford Foundation and a number of smaller trusts and foundations.
Oxford Tracking Group - http://users.ox.ac.uk/~abrg/tracking/
Save the Elephants - http://www.savetheelephants.org/
Elephants and Bees Project - http://www.elephantsandbees.com/
Beehive Fence Construction Manual - http://elephantsandbees.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/1-King-2012-Beehive-Fence-Construction-Manual.pdf