How bees can help protect elephants

A TED Talk by Dr Lucy King discusses how a small yet powerful insect, the bee, may hold the key to protecting both elephants and humans.

Elephants are the largest land mammals on earth. These complex social creatures are vital to ecology and amongst other things play a key role in the semination of plants across Africa. They are also however, a nuisance, and even an enemy to many people throughout Africa who live side-by-side with these amazing animals.

Due to steadily decreasing natural territory and the increasing spread of humans, elephant habitats and thus their food sources are under threat. As any animal would do, elephants will take food from wherever they can find it, irrelevant of humans.

Dr Lucy King, Zoologist, has turned her life’s fascination with elephants into her life’s mission: to protect these animals from humans. Dr King talks about her youth spent with her family throughout the game reserves in Southern Africa, and how seeing tall electrified fences blocking off the game reserves disturbed her. After spending many years studying elephants in the wild, Dr King observed that elephant-human conflict is very much an issue, especially in the more rural and under-developed areas, where humans and elephants fight for the same thing: space and food.

Elephants migrate in order to find food and that means that they sometimes get stuck inside human areas which leads to alarming and undesirable behaviour like breaking into homes and shops to grab food and crashing through water tanks and walls and also trampling crops. In these situations, elephants threaten the livelihood of many and are therefore unwelcome and won’t be tolerated.

So far electrified fences are no real match for elephants, yet humans continue to erect these. Dr King explains that we need to understand the behaviour of elephants in order to harness the best possible way to keep them out of certain areas. In Northern Kenya, rural pastoralists told Dr King about how elephants who broke the branches of trees that had beehives in them were exposed to thousands of beestings. Elephants have phenomenal memories and much of their memory informs their behaviour and how they protect their young. In a nutshell the elephants did not like the pain of a thousand beestings and would remember that particular tree was dangerous and would therefore stay away from it. Dr King wanted to know more about how African elephants and African bees interact which lead her to play the sound of the African bee to elephants through wireless speakers under trees. The reaction was dramatic. The elephants immediately displayed behaviours peculiar to avoiding bees and their stings- flapping ears, shaking heads, and even a hasty retreat into the savannah.

This led Dr King to design a ‘beehive fence’. This fence has a simple design where 12 real hives and 12 dummy hives are used to protect a 1-acre plot. The dummy hive looks exactly like the real hives and is just a visual trick and trigger, but which also brings the cost of the fences down massively. The hives are spaced 10 metres apart. The beehives are held up by posts with a shade roof and they are all connected with a piece of wire. The wire is a nifty trick- the elephants are smart enough to avoid the hives but may try to crash through the fence between the hives. This will cause the wire to swing, in turn making all the hives swing and disturb the bees. The hope is that the elephants will flee in order to avoid being stung and they’ll remember not to come back to the area.

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