David and Goliath: how bees can save elephants

Beehive fence (Credit: Lazzycow Where World Begins | Flickr)

On World Bee Day, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) highlighted how indigenous knowledge systems can be harnessed to develop scientific solutions to ecological problems.

A Kenyan old-wives-tale recounts how the giant elephant is terrified of the tiny bee. Dr. Lucy King, the head of the Elephants and Bees project scientifically tested this theory to develop a sustainable solution to the rising human-elephant conflicts in Africa. 

With better restrictions against elephant poaching across the continent, the elephant population has steadily improved in Africa. However, this has also led to a rise in conflict situations between human communities and wild elephants entering villages to forage food and water. Farming families across the elephant range regularly face attacks by the animals entering their homes and destroying their crops.

“It is really the communities living in the lower end of the economic scale that are being badly affected by human-elephant conflict. So the damage is disproportionately significant on most household finances,” said King at FAO’s World Bee Day held virtually. 

Exploring the folklore 

“We took a really scientific approach to exploring a local folklore in Kenya that elephants were scared of bees and that they wouldn’t forage on trees that had beehives in them,” King said. 

With her team of researchers, King studied the behaviour of the elephants in Kenya by playing the sound of the Africanized bees, or the apis mellifier, around them. The folklore proved to be true! The elephants would not only flee from the buzzing sounds, but would also shake their heads and dust themselves to remove any bees on them while vocalising others to retreat. 

“Talking to the local communities and really listening to the indigenous stories, we heard that as elephants were breaking down branches to feed on, they were breaking open wild bee swarms,” King said. When disturbed the hundreds of bees in the swarm would attack the elephants with thousands of stings on their eyes, mouths and trunks. The pheromone emitted by Africanised bees also works as a call, triggering other bees to attack as well. 

How the bees save the elephants

Based on this study, King and her team created the beehive fencing system to protect both elephant and human victims from the conflicts between the two communities. 

Built on the very frontline of the human-elephant conflict, beehives are strung between posts around a farm or a village. The separate hives are then connected by plain wire, so that any attempts of an elephant to enter the protected region will disturb the wire connected to the beehives, triggering the bees. 

“One of the reasons this works for elephants is that they only need one or two negative experiences being stung by bees and they will literally never forget. They will never go near that farm again or that beehive again,” King said. 

This design, though seemingly simplistic, has proved to be up to 80 per cent effective in stopping elephants from entering the villages. 

The human side of beehive fences

Some of the biggest challenges the Elephants and Bees project face is making the beehive fencing sustainable and autonomous. Beyond the cost of maintaining the fences itself, keeping each beehive fully occupied and active is a major difficulty. 

“In Tsavo we have 51 beehive fences with over 650 beehives. So we are trying to increase occupation, which is becoming more challenging in light of climate change,” King reported. Efforts to gather more bees by putting out catcher boxes in trees, as well as to maintain the population in the hives by planting sunflowers nearby are being implemented. 

Training of local farmers to maintain the beehive fencing autonomously has been hampered by the lack of beekeeping manuals in African languages. Translation of information and training in accessible languages is necessary. 

With high numbers of bees absconding from the beehives, and the reducing number of bees, King emphasised the need for more research on the behaviour of African honey bees. 

Impact of climate change

“I feel very passionately about this subject. We are living climate change here in Kenya,” King said, citing the erratic rainfalls and the severe drought that the country experienced in the past year. 

“We have been recording the activity of our beehives during the last ten years in the study zone, and we’ve really noticed a devastation on our hive colonies as the frequency of the droughts increase,” she reported. The erratic rainfall has also increased the amount of pests and parasites that disturb the integrity of the hives. 

Beyond scaring away elephants, the contributions of bees to our planet is immense. Bees pollinate over 75 per cent of our food sources, and are the underlying framework on which our biodiversity exists. More research is necessary to understand how climate change is affecting the bees. 

“We thought we were studying elephants and bees, now we seem to be studying a decline in bees in our area,” King said. “It is very expensive to keep recording the data for every hive in every situation, but we have to just got to do it because bees are a canary for our world.”