Bee Buzz Scares off African Elephants

October 9, 2007

Recordings of angry bees are enough to send even big, tough African elephants scrambling, a new study says.

Strategically placed beehives—either recorded or real—may even prevent elephants from raiding farmers' crops.

As some elephant populations in Africa grow larger and more land is cleared for agriculture, elephants are clashing with humans. A few have even trampled farmers.

In return, some farmers have killed problem elephants, and support for elephant conservation measures is waning.

"I've seen some devastating things," said study lead author Lucy King, a zoologist with the Nairobi, Kenya-based nonprofit Save the Elephants.

King, also a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, is working with farmers in the Laikipia district of Kenya to develop strategies for keeping elephants away. In that area, maize, beans, and squash are among the most common crops lost to elephants. (See a Kenya map.)

The idea of scaring elephants with bees comes from earlier observations by King's colleagues Fritz Vollrath and Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants. They determined in 2002 that elephants will avoid acacia trees with beehives.

Tender Spots

For the new study, King wanted to see if African honeybees might deter elephants from eating crops. But before she asked farmers to go to the trouble of setting up hives, she sought direct evidence that bees would scare elephants away.

King found a wild hive inside the hollow of a tree in northern Kenya and set up a minidisc recorder outside. Then, wearing a protective bee suit, she tossed a stone in. "The hive just exploded," she said. King and her assistant hid in a car while waiting for the bees to subside.

Next, King tracked down elephant families in Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya. In multiple trials, she hid a wireless speaker in a fake tree trunk near each group of elephants, then drove away.

From a distance, King triggered the pre-recorded sound of angry bees while recording the elephants with a video camera.

Continued on Next Page >>


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