Half the elephant groups departed within ten seconds. King conducted 17 trials with separate elephant families, and only one family ignored the warning.
"All the young ones would immediately run to their mums and sort of huddle under them," she said.
Bees can't sting through thick adult elephant skin, but the insects do find a few vulnerable spots. They are attracted to the elephants' watery eyes and will "go up the trunk, which must be awful," King said.
When King played the sound of a roaring waterfall instead of furious bees to many of the same elephant families, the animals were undisturbed. Even after four minutes, most of the groups stayed put, she and her colleagues reported this week in the journal Current Biology.
A bee solution may not be long-lasting, however.
Buzzing bees might scare away elephants the first few times. But after hearing the sound without getting stung, the intelligent animals might become complacent.
That's a dilemma when using any device designed to shoo wildlife, said Adrian Treves of the University of Wisconsin, who was not involved in the study.
Treves has used sounds and lights to keep bears and wolves from preying on livestock in the western United States.
King now is studying whether the elephants will continue to avoid the sounds after hearing them several times. She hasn't tested enough groups yet to know.
Her initial results were promising enough to begin trials with farmers. King has begun placing recorders directly in the fields to see if elephants are frightened away.
Yet the farmers she works with cannot afford the sound equipment.
Even if players could be donated, it might not work—few farmers have electricity to charge the recorders.
Although real hives will require extra effort to maintain, King thinks that they might be more useful. Honey from real beehives maintained by farmers could provide a second income stream, she said. (Related news: "'Killer Bee' Touted as Economic Lifesaver in S. Africa" [November 4, 2002].)
The concept echoes another elephant-control initiative in Zimbabwe and other countries: planting chilies to keep elephants away. That's because elephants don't like capsaicin, the chemical in chilies that makes them hot.
A few rows of the pungent fruit planted around valuable crops creates a buffer zone through which the elephants are reluctant to pass.
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