Elephants are scared of… bees?



A Kenyan farmer stands near a beehive fence
Credit Oxford University/Lucy King

There’s not a lot that can scare an elephant. As healthy adults, they really have no predators, other than humans. But apparently they’re scared of bees.

University of Oxford zoologist Fritz Vollrath and his graduate student Lucy King had previously shown that elephants have a natural fear of African honeybees. Even just the sound of buzzing bees is enough to drive them away from a place. This knowledge became the key to creating an ingenious solution to keep elephants from raiding farmer’s crops – create a fence made from wood, wire, and… beehives.

African elephants are listed as near threatened under the World Conservation Union’s Red List, and their overall numbers appear to be increasing but they are still at risk, especially those individuals that do not live within a nature preserve. Besides being poached for their valuable ivory tusks, elephants occasionally get shot, speared, or poisoned by farmers when the pachyderms get the munchies for delicious crops, like tomatoes, maize, and potatoes - though to do so is illegal.

Fritz, King and other Save the Elephants scientists created elephant deterrent fences, made of unoccupied beehives - hollow pieces of tree trunk – placed on wire. These particular hives were not currently occupied by bees, but nevertheless, the elephants recognize the shape and smell of the hive, and that’s enough to deter them. The fencing was placed in the 20,000 acre Ex-Erok community in Laikipia, Kenya in an area identified as high-risk for elephant crop raiding. Eight farmers participated in the study, roughly one third of the total farmers in the area.

The scientists found that Kenyan farmers using the fences could reduce elephants raids by one half. On farms with the beehive fence, a total of 38 individual elephants reached the farmers’ crops, compared to 95 individual elephants on farms without fences. The published their study in the latest issue of African Journal of Ecology. The project proved so successful that after the study other farmers in the area decided to build more fencing and fund it on their own because of its success at deterring the pachyderms.

Just like the owls and kestrels in Israel deterring rodents, this is yet another example of nature proving to be some of the best options for deterring unwanted “pests.” Do you know any other examples?

Learn more about elephants.

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