Bees Could Save Elephants and Protect Crops

posted by Jake Richardson
Jun 20, 2010

Researcher Lucy King is exploring the possibility that live bees could be used in African croplands to protect crops from elephants. A single elephant can do major damage to a farmer’s crops, and those crops may be the only food available for the farmer and his family.

Lucy and her colleagues have published several research studies about the response elephants in Africa have to hearing the sounds of African bees. In a recent paper, they stated:

“The sound of disturbed African honeybees Apis meliffera scutellata causes African elephants Loxodonta africana to retreat and produce warning vocalizations that lead other elephants to join the flight.”

Elephants in Africa have few predators. One animal they fear and retreat from sometimes is lions. It has also been observed that they avoid trees containing wild bee nests. An experiment was conducted in which audio of disturbed bees was played in the presence of elephants, and they began to rumble and move away. The rumbling noises they make are important because they are alarm signals which elephants further away can still hear. In addition to retreating, elephants also do headshaking, and dusting when they hear bee sounds, probably to reduce the number of stings they could receive. The researchers also recorded the elephants rumbles in response to hearing the bee buzzing. They played audio of the elephant rumbles to live elephants to observe their responses.

The hope is live, wild bees placed strategically within croplands could effectively deter elephants from damaging crops. Also, the conflict between humans and elephants has left members of both species injured, traumatized, or dead in some cases. A deterrent that has been tried with limited success is electric fences. If the bee fence idea works, it could be very beneficial to everyone.

“In Kenya, for example, 130 elephants were killed in human’s elephant conflict situations between 1990 and 1993 whereas elephants killed 108 people during the same period (Kiiru 1995).”

In addition, elephants are very valuable to the Kenyan economy because of the steady influx of tourists who visit specifically to see large wild animals like the elephants. So maintaining a healthy elephant population is of the utmost importance to preserve nature, and to protect the flow of income from tourism.

“A living elephant in Kenya is worth $14,375 in income from tourists for every year of its life, and elephant-related tourism brings about $200 million each year.”

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