It is amazing how one of the smallest creatures can influence the behaviour of one of the largest!
The Elephants and Bees Project ( https://elephantsandbees.com ) is an innovative and award-winning research project using an understanding of elephant behaviour to reduce damage from crop-
raiding elephants by using their instinctive avoidance of African honey bees. Established by Dr Lucy King, the project is a collaboration between Save the Elephants (https://www.savetheelephants.org), Oxford University (https://www.ox.ac.uk) and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/destinations/animal-kingdom/).
There is a rising incidence of elephant-human conflict in Eastern and Southern Africa as elephants expand their range into areas densely settled by humans. The elephants are taking old migratory routes and are either being blocked by new developments; or are breaking into farmland to take advantage of agricultural produce.
Elephants tend to raid crops at night, forcing farmers to defend their property with stones, fire crackers or even bullets shot into the air to frighten off the raiders. The elephants respond with heightened aggression, and some will charge and attack. The result can be terrible injuries, or even death, for both the people and the farmers.
Wounded elephants are extremely dangerous, posing a threat to anyone in their path. However, killing elephants is illegal, and the death of an elephant impacts on the elephant family unit.
Elephants have long memories and there is evidence that elephants that have lost family members at the hands of humans become more aggressive toward humans in future.
The research focussed on finding effective farmer-managed deterrents that are socially and economically effective. For example, electric fences are neither feasible nor affordable.
To explore the elephants’ response to honey bees, researchers played recordings of the sounds of disturbed wild bees (and other natural threats) to a study group of elephants. Their reaction was to actively avoid the threat of the honey bees. In addition, the elephants emitted a unique low frequency rumble to warn other elephants in the area of the danger.
This finding encouraged the researchers to develop and test ‘beehive fences’ around the farmers’ fields with the aim of reducing human-elephant conflict. One farmer, Wabongo, walks his fence-line every morning, filling bottles and cans around the hives with water and sugar for the bees, then covering the water with sticks to exclude birds. In hot weather the water needs to be topped-up during the day. Like other farmers, Wabongo was given sunflower seeds in the hope that the flowers would attract more bees. Once the flowers were pollinated, the seeds were collected for planting next season. For more information, go to the Elephants and Bees website https://elephantsandbees.com or https://www.aljazeera.com/program/earthrise/2013/7/9/bee-fence.