While reading info on African Elepants, I came a across an article from October 2007 issue of Current Biology entitled “African elephants run from the sound of disturbed bees“.  The authors are Lucy E. King, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Fritz Vollrath.  With a title like that, I had to read more.  In this strange but true study, the results were quite consistent.  Enjoy reading and our safety tipe must be: don’t forget to take you can of bees with you next trip into the bush.

Late Afternoon Ellies in B&W - copyright 2009: P. B. Eleazer

Late Afternoon Ellies in B&W - copyright 2009: P. B. Eleazer

Encroaching human development into former wildlife areas has compressed African elephants into ever smaller home ranges causing increased levels of contact between humans and elephants. A study in the October 9th issue of Current Biology supports the concept that strategically placed beehives might offer a natural elephant deterrent and an efficient way to mitigate Human Elephant Conflict.

Experiments in Samburu National Reserve, Northern Kenya, by Lucy King and her collaborators demonstrated that a significant majority of the local elephants fled as soon as they heard the sound of aggressive bees played from a disguised loudspeaker. This observation is providing strong support for the concept that bees, and indeed perhaps even just their buzz, might be used to keep elephants at bay.
“We expected the elephants to respond to the threatening sound of disturbed bees, but we were really surprised by the speed of their reaction. ” said Lucy King. “Almost half of the groups we studied moved away within seconds of the bee buzz being turned on. This suggests that they already knew the sound and really did not like it.” King is affiliated with Oxford University’s Department of Zoology as well as Save the Elephants, a conservation organization founded and
run by Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton (www.savetheelephants.org).
Earlier studies by Douglas-Hamilton and Fritz Vollrath suggested that elephants prefer to stay clear of bees. For example they were able to show on a ranch in Kenya’s Laikipia District, that trees hosting beehives were damaged significantly less than trees without bees. In Zimbabwe, Loki Osborne and collaborators found that elephants would avoid a beehive placed on their raiding trail leading to a field of maize. Similar observations were made by farmers in Nepal with raiding Indian elephants, as a local beekeeper emailed the team.

In the present, exciting new study, which is part of Lucy’s PhD project, King tested specifically the response of known elephants to the buzz of disturbed local African bees recorded digitally. Sixteen of the 17 family groups that were tested during their noon time nap left their resting places under trees within 80 seconds of hearing the bee sound coming from a speaker ten meters away. Significantly, 8 of the groups fled within just 10 seconds of hearing
the bees while not one of groups that heard the control sound of natural white noise (extracted from a waterfall) moved that fast. Indeed, of the 15 control groups only 4 groups were sufficiently bothered by the unexpected white-noise sound of a waterfall to move at all within 80 seconds.
These valuable experiments are beginning to outline a new tool in the growing armory in nonlethal elephant deterrents available to farmers and conservation managers across Kenya. Innovative approaches are sorely needed in order to avoid extreme solutions such as shooting problem animals. Lucy King cautions that the use of beehives to shoo elephants away might prove to have limited application and that more research is needed to understand the scope of
the ‘guardian bee’ concept. “But, ideally the concept works as well as we hope”, says Lucy, “and bees will enable the local farmers to reduce elephant crop-raiding and tree destruction while at the same time providing some income through the sale of honey. This would be a significant and valuable step forward towards sustainable human-elephant coexistence.”

For more information, contact Lucy King at email lucy.king@zoo.ox.ac.uk.