Most of us have heard about the birds and the bees, but what about the elephants and the bees?
As human populations continue to expand, African elephant (Loxodonta africana) populations are experiencing substantial declines. Part of this decline is due to human-elephant conflict. Elephants eat a TON of food – roughly 110 tons per elephant per year. That breaks down to around 220 to 880 pounds of food per elephant per day (Shoshani and Foley 2000). With their habitats slowly dwindling and becoming more fragmented, elephants have been increasingly turning toward raiding farmers’ lands to obtain these resources. As a consequence, elephants have damaged crops, depleted food stores and water sources, and sometimes have even threatened human lives (Hoare 2001). Early attempts to manage this conflict involved shooting the ‘problem’ elephants. However, this disturbs other animals and the surviving elephants have been known to respond with hostility toward humans (Vollrath and Douglas-Hamilton 2002). This situation is clearly dangerous for both humans and elephants and calls for a creative solution to this human-elephant conflict.
Inspired by the work of Vollrath and Douglas-Hamilton (2002), this creative solution came from Dr. Lucy King’s idea to use one the elephant’s worst fears to steer them clear of these farmers’ lands. You might be wondering, what could the largest animal on land possibly be afraid of? The answer: bees.
It turns out that even just the sound of African honeybees (Apis mellifera) causes African elephants to immediately retreat (King et al. 2007). During this retreat, these elephants warn other nearby elephants by producing distinct rumble sounds that causes other elephants to flee while shaking their heads, perhaps to prevent bee stings (King et al. 2010). Research has shown that elephants actually have different alarm vocalizations for bees compared to other threats such as humans, which causes elephants to react in different ways (Solstis et al. 2014). This special alarm call and behavioral response to the sound of bees, such as headshaking, highlights the urgency of the threat elephants perceive from these bees. The African honeybee is notorious for being easily aroused and for having large groups involved in aggressive, swarming attacks. African elephants have thin skin with blood vessels near the surface in several locations such as on their belly, in their trunk, around their eyes, and behind their ears. This makes these areas more sensitive to the African honey bees that can and will sting these elephants, and sometimes entire herds are affected by these swarms (Villrath and Douglas-Hamilton). Elephants are known for living in social groups and for having long memories, so it makes sense that such a negative experience can have long-lasting effects.
A pilot study was conducted by King et al. (2009) that used these bees as a way to deter elephants from raiding farmer’s crops. They accomplished this by constructing beehive fences and placing them around the crops. This preliminary study was remarkably successful at reducing the number of elephant raids of these crops. Not only are the farmers able to significantly reduce the amount of damage to their crops from elephants, but many suspected these fences also deter people from stealing their cattle and later, they were able to collect honey, beeswax, and other products for these hives as an additional source of income (King et al. 2009). News of the success of these beehive fences spread and these fences can now be found throughout several countries in Africa and Asia.
These studies have given rise to a huge conservation effort to mitigate human-elephant conflict and support elephant conservation through the Elephants and Bees Project. This is a collaborative project involving teams of researchers from Save the Elephants, Oxford University, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and several other institutions. More information, photos, and scientific studies from these efforts can be found on their webpage: http://elephantsandbees.com/
Hoare RE. 2001. Determinants of human-elephant conflict in a land-use mosaic. Journal of Applied Ecology 36(5): 689-700.
King LE, I Douglas-Hamilton, and F Vollrath. 2007. African elephants run from the sound of disturbed bees. Current Biology 17(19): 832-833.
King LE, A Lawrence, and I Douglas-Hamilton. 2009. Beehive fence deters crop-raiding elephants. African Journal of Ecology 47: 131-137.
King LE, J Solstis, I Douglas-Hamilton, A Savage, and F Vollrath. 2010. Bee threat elicits alarm call in African elephants. PLoS One 5(4): 1-9.
Shoshani J and C Foley. 2000. Frequently asked questions about elephants. Elephant 2(4): 78-87.
Solstis J, LE King, I Douglas-Hamilton, F Vollrath, and A Savage. 2014. African elephant alarm calls distinguish between threats from humans and bees. PLoS One 9(2): 1-11.
Vollrath F and I Douglas-Hamilton. 2002. African bees to control African elephants. Naturwissenschaften 89: 508-511.
All images, except the one detailing the beehive fence, were obtained from CreativeCommons.
Beehive fence construction was obtained from King et al. (2009), referenced above.