The Elephant and the Honeybee

Here’s a win-win story about a notoriously destructive human-wildlife interaction, and the little insect that just might save the day.

Elephants, as delightful (and Vulnerable) as they are, can cause a lot of damage. They have been seen as a pest in some parts of Africa and Asia for years, particularly feared for destroying crops and houses and even killing people in wild rampages through farming villages. This human-wildlife conflict has escalated severely in the last few decades, as human populations increase and human settlements and infrastructure encroach further into elephant home ranges. And you could excuse the elephants for having plenty of rage, built up from years of poaching, hunting and abuse at the hands of humans.

Elephant carcasses left to rot, killed only for their tusks. (Source: National Geographic, 2010)

Researchers have spent a lot of time and money identifying ways to deter elephants from plundering fields and attacking villages, including electric fences, thorn-bush barricades, firecrackers, drums and even concentrated chilli extract. Unfortunately, the success of these methods varied greatly across time and in different locations, and rural human communities were still no closer to finding a solution.

As we can assume from other failed animal control exercises, many “artificial” control methods that use stress, fear or shock in an attempt to scare an animal off (things like loud repetitive noises, or flashing lights) often only work for a short time, until the animal figures out that it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Enter Dr Lucy King, from Save the Elephants, who did her PhD research on using beehive fences as elephant deterrents, based on knowledge that elephants were naturally wary of bees, avoiding trees in their habitat that harboured hives. Her research was so good, she has just won the coveted 2011 UNEP/CMS Thesis Award on Migratory Species Conservation.

Not only did she discover that elephants were so frightened of African honey bees that they ran away from digital recordings of bee sounds, she has invented a new type of barrier fence made of beehives hanging from poles, which are connected with a wire around a crop field. When the elephants try to enter the field, they press against the wire, which shakes the poles, and agitates the hives…and out come the angry bees, looking for the culprit.

The research is only preliminary, but it has a lot of potential to benefit both elephants and humans if the system can be implemented and maintained. The elephants can learn to stay away from fields and villages, thus reducing the risk of being abused, injured or killed. The humans can maintain their livelihood, whilst getting an extra cash crop (honey) as a bonus, and increased crop yields from the enhanced pollination services. And the bees get free food and accommodation for their guard duties.

Break through this, if you dare...

As the UNEP Executive Director said, when presenting Dr King with the award, “Her research underlines how working with, rather than against, nature can provide humanity with many of the solutions to the challenges [we] face”.

Hear hear.

The beehive fence is a complete biological pest control – the “enemy” (the beehive) is not bioengineered or modified, just applied in its purely natural form. Also, from the elephant’s perspective, it maintains Human’s place in nature as a fellow animal, not a competitor or predator to be feared or threatened by.

An “alien” control, one that the elephant would probably not encounter in nature, like the shock of an electric fence, merely separates the elephant further from humans, perpetuating the myth that humans are detached, different, and in need of a controlled, anthropogenic bubble to hermetically-seal themselves away from Nature. A beehive fence means the elephants can learn to associate humans with bees, a natural threat, not a deceptive, artificial one, and therefore may reduce their tendency to attack villages and human “competitors”.

Ecology is all about the interactions between organisms and their environment, and the beehive fence epitomises this – balancing naturally-evolved ecological interactions to benefit all parties, rather than modifying environments to suit only ourselves.

© Manu Saunders 2012

2 thoughts on “The Elephant and the Honeybee

  1. RAB October 19, 2012 / 11:54 AM

    Fascinating. Nature continues to be wiser than technology.


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