By Rick Docksai
Bees may keep elephants safe.
Elephants have at least one trait in common with us humans: They, like us, steer clear of bumblebees. And some conservationists have figured out ways to use elephants’ fear of bees to enhance greater safety for elephants and humans alike.
The Elephants and Bees Project, a new endeavor by the nonprofit Save the Elephants, places “beehive fences” on the outskirts of villages in areas of Africa where elephants tend to roam. The fences consist of rows of ten or more beehives all set up on poles, and strands of rope or wire running from pole to pole. If elephants approach the fences and brush up against the rope or wire, the hives will swing, which will cause bees to fly out and the elephants to back away.
Elephant raids on village farmlands have been an increasingly common problem in Africa, due to international bans on ivory making it possible for elephant herds to finally grow again after dwindling in the 1970s and 1980s from heavy poaching. As the herds resurge, they look for new food sources and often foray into human-populated areas, where they will raid crop fields.
These crop field raids have led to farmers setting off firecrackers, throwing stones, or shooting bullets into the air, in order to scare the elephants away. More often than not, the elephants charge and attack instead. Injuries to—and deaths of—both elephants and humans frequently ensue from these altercations.
The bees are a deterrent to elephants for the simple reason that bee stings hurt them, too, if the stings occur in the right places. Most of an elephant’s body is shielded, the skin being 2.5 centimeters thick on average—far thicker than human skin, and more than adequate to protect an elephant from feeling much of anything from a bee sting. Elephants’ inner trunks and the areas around their eyes, however, are soft spots, and a bee sting to any of them will pack quite a wallop. Elephants steer clear of trees that hold beehives as a result.
The farmers get some side benefits, too. First, their crops get more pollination, as that is what bees do best. Second, the hives may produce honey that the farmers can sell for additional income.
Save the Elephants first tested the beehive fences in three villages in Kenya and reports an 85% success rate. Three communities in Tanzania subsequently built beehive fences of their own. Even more fences are either up and running or under development in Botswana, Mozambique, and Uganda.