Elephants Are Very Scared of Bees. That Could Save Their Lives.


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Elephants are afraid of bees. Let that sink in for a second. The biggest animal on land is so frightened of a tiny insect that it’s going to flap its ears, fire up mud and make noises when it hears the thrill of a beehive.

After all a bee’s stinger can’t penetrate the thick disguise of an elephant. However when bees swarm — and African bees swarm aggressively — a whole bunch of bees may sting an elephant in its most delicate areas, the trunk, mouth and eyes. And so they harm.

The specter of bees is so intensely felt by elephants that conservationists are utilizing it to assist stop the sorts of battle that put the behemoths in danger. The endangered animals have generally been shot by farmers attempting to save lots of their crops from elephants foraging at night time for late-night snacks, or by poachers allowed entry to assist guard the fields.

Now there’s a weapon — and a mutually helpful one — within the arsenal. Lately, researchers and advocates have persuaded farmers to make use of the elephant’s worry of bees as a possible fence line to guard crops. By stringing beehives each 20 meters — alternating with pretend hives — a staff of researchers in Africa has proven that they’ll hold 80 % of elephants away from farmland.

A lioness in South Africa disturbed by swarming African honeybees. Although no extra venomous, African bees are extra aggressive than bees in Europe or Asia.Credit scoreAndrew Forsyth/Barcroft Media, through Getty Photos

In a brand new examine revealed this week, the identical staff, led by Lucy King, an Oxford College analysis affiliate, discovered that Asian elephants are additionally afraid of bees, although maybe much less so. It’s step one towards displaying that the management technique also can work in nations like Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Thailand, the place Asian elephants are 10 occasions extra endangered than their African cousins.

[READ: Hunt Elephants to Save Them? Some Countries See No Other Choice]

The Asian elephants behaved just a little in another way: They didn’t shake their heads or bathe themselves with mud, however they did make noises, shying away from the bees and touching each other’s trunks or placing a trunk into one other’s mouth, maybe as an indication of reassurance or consolation. The Asian elephants additionally generally slapped their trunks in opposition to the bottom in worry.

It’s not clear whether or not Asian elephants react in another way to bees as a result of the bees in Asia are much less aggressive. Or possibly the elephants merely have totally different behavioral responses, the way in which folks from one tradition may giggle in the event that they’re nervous and people from one other may fidget or speak quick, mentioned John Poulsen, a tropical ecologist and assistant professor at Duke College, who has helped conduct related elephant-bee analysis.

In Africa, Save the Elephants, a nonprofit conservationist group, builds wire and beehive fences at a value of about $1,000 for a one-acre farm — roughly one-fifth the price of an electrified fence, mentioned Dr. King, who additionally heads the human-elephant coexistence program for the charity. The farm will get safety in opposition to elephants and a modest new supply of earnings from a twice-a-year honey harvest.

The beehives need to be strung on a wire sturdy sufficient to carry them up, however not so sturdy that the hives can’t sway within the breeze. Dr. King discovered early on swinging hive causes the bees to flee, turning into extra lively and scaring the elephants.

Farmers placing up a bee fence in Sri Lanka to scare away elephants that forage of their fields and destroy crops.Credit scoreLucy King

Elephants are so sensible that in the event that they don’t have the “detrimental conditioning” of some stings — for example, if researchers simply play a recording of buzzing bees — they shortly be taught that the menace isn’t actual, Dr. King mentioned.

The fences additionally function a psychological barrier for the farmers, making them suppose twice earlier than slashing and burning extra forest for farmland, she mentioned.

[READ: Elephants: Large, Long-Living and Less Prone to Cancer]

To date, the beehive fences are getting used or examined in 11 nations in Africa and 4 in Asia, and the farmers appear to understand the method, with greater than 200 volunteering to take part within the final yr. “After I first began, I needed to actually persuade folks to strive it,” Dr. King mentioned in a Skype name from Kenya. “They thought I used to be completely insane. Then they thought, effectively, she’s giving us free beehives, so no matter. Now persons are queuing as much as do it.”

Dr. King acknowledged worry of bees gained’t be sufficient to maintain the elephants away. When the fields are full of bounty, for example, farmers could must scare off elephants by profiting from their different fears, just like the sound of barking canine or pictures fired into the air.

Steeve Ngama, a doctoral candidate with the Université de Liège in Belgium, who has accomplished related analysis, mentioned through electronic mail that bee hives are a good suggestion. In some way, although, elephants could outsmart the bees and work out a workaround.

“If elephants have stakes, for example, accessing succulent fruits or crops, they are going to take time to discover ways to overcome the tactic,” he mentioned. “More often than not they succeed; particularly when the reward is definitely worth the danger.”

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