Elephants are beloved the world over; this species has become an iconic reminder of the importance of conservation efforts. Their iconic status is due at least in part to the fact that it has taken a concerted effort to save these majestic animals from extinction. Now, another species is lending its assistance to the fight—the honey bee!
A worldwide ban on ivory, crackdowns on poaching, and incredible efforts to improve wildlife management techniques have led to elephant populations in Africa and Asia being on the rise. Which is great—unless you’re a farmer whose crops now lie in the path of one of these newly revitalized herds. When fences and moats failed, farmers turned to methods like firing gunshots in the air and setting off fireworks to startle the trespassing pachyderms, which was more effective but sometimes led to humans and elephants being injured. They needed another way.
Hoping for Harmony
Finding ways to peacefully coexist with our animal brethren isn’t always easy. But zoologist and elephant lover Lucy King was determined to help farmers—and elephants—live in harmony. She decided to investigate what she believed was something of an old wives’ tale in Kenya: that the mighty elephant is terrified of honeybees.
To her surprise, playing a tape of swarming, furious honeybees had a galvanizing effect on herds. They immediately headed as far from the sound as they could, at an urgent pace. This is particularly interesting because even African honey bees, which are extremely aggressive, don’t have strong enough stingers to penetrate the hide of an adult elephant. King theorizes that elephants learned to flee bees because of the damage they can do to elephant calves. A swarm of angry African honeybees, she points out, is probably capable of stinging a baby elephant to death.
Putting the Plan into Action
Lucy looked for a farm that was having recurring issues with elephants. One of the farms she found was not only the victim of frequent crop raiding, but also lay directly in the path preferred by the elephants when they raided other farms. The farmer was at his wits end; his livelihood was literally being trampled.
She set up a perimeter fence utilizing traditional hanging beehives. Each hive was connected to the next by a strong wire. When the wires were pushed, it would set the hives swinging. This didn’t harm the bees, but they didn’t like it, and would begin buzzing warningly. Would it be enough to teach elephants to go around the crops instead of through them?
It was! The farmer reclaimed his land, and there was no need to escalate the situation with the bad-mannered, crop munching elephants. Lucy went on to teach other farmers how to protect their lands by utilizing bees. The practice has spread—not only through Kenya, but everywhere that elephants and farmers must coexist: Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, Botswana, and Mozambique.
This brilliant, simple, and natural solution has a plethora of rewards. Not only are the crops protected by the bees, but they’re also pollinated by them. And of course, bees don’t just produce buzzing—the farmers get to enjoy their own supply of honey, and collect it to sell locally.
Lucy established the Elephant and Bees Project as an opportunity to research and spread this effective, sustainable practice, supported and sponsored by Save the Elephants, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Oxford University. The project has proven to offer a wealth of research opportunities, as it helps both humans and elephants across Africa and Asia. It’s a truly beautiful example of how a commitment to finding Earth- and animal-friendly solutions can be advantageous for human beings, as well.
african elephant family:
Photographer: Diana Robinson