Elephant week: Elephants are scared of bees

Beehive fence

I love this photo because you can see the beehive fence, and Wabongo’s hedges look like an elephant in the background, hehe

To celebrate Earth Day (or maybe just because I feel like it), I’m going to have a full week of elephants!  I had the opportunity to interact with them pretty closely when I was in Kenya because I was working in a human-wildlife conflict zone.

The background is that Tsavo National Park has two large sections (together they are the same size as Lebanon!). Elephants and other charismatic megafauna (i.e. interesting large mammals) used to be able to migrate back and forth from Tsavo East to Tsavo West with no problems.  Then humans installed a railroad right down the middle of the two parks (see The Man-eaters of Tsavo). This was a problem, but the problem got a lot worse recently when the Kenyan government decided to “modernize” the railroad.

The modernization of the railroad was funded by the Chinese government (or so I was told by a few disgruntled Kenyans), and they decided that a massive and robust 4 meter fence on either side of the railway was necessary to keep the wildlife out. (Here’s a helpful article on it.)

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This had unintended consequences, naturally.  One consequence of the new fence is that large herds of elephants that were trying to move from Tsavo West to Tsavo East hit the fence and started spilling north, into heavily settled agricultural areas. Elephants looooove maize, so they begin crop raiding. I arrived at the research camp in the heart of this agricultural area in the middle of an “elephant crisis”. More than 150 elephants were raiding crops throughout the community.

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Tooooo close…and he’s giving us a good sniff

Elephant crop raiding is bad for everyone; it’s bad for humans because many of the farmers are subsistence farmers completely reliant on their crops for food and very close to extreme poverty even in a good year. It’s bad for elephants because disgruntled/starving humans are more likely to either kill elephants or hide poachers who kill elephants.

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Don’t hurt this elephant…so cute!

Fortunately, researchers are on top of this problem. Dr. Lucy King* learned during her PhD research that elephants are scared of bees! She invented a “bee-hive fence” This basically operates as an elephant deterrent by stringing honeybee hives together with wire in a perimeter around the crops. If the elephant disturbs the wire, the bees come spilling out of the hive and sting the elephant on its sensitive nose, eyes, and ears.

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This tickles me because I LOVE mutualisms of all sorts, and everything mutually benefical, and this is just so perfect (it also plays in perfectly with my research that searches for mutually beneficial solutions for conservation and agriculture). It’s good for elephants, because people don’t shoot them, it’s good for the farmers because they get to keep their crops and they get honey, which is an incredibly valuable asset.  In practice, the whole process is a little more complicated, as I learned. The hives require maintenance and African bees are not the same as our lovely domesticated honeybees.  They once chased my friend Esther and I across a field and we had to kneel and keep our heads down for a good 45 minutes before they calmed down.

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Esther carefully escaping the bees after bravely rescuing our traps. You can see the beehive fence next to her.

However, in principle this is just lovely and I felt so lucky to get the opportunity to work there, although my project was slightly peripheral to the main theme of the research (my five year old self is horrified, but apparently I’m more of a bird and bee nerd***** than a mammal nerd). Even though I was probably the least useful person at the research camp, I had the privilege of learning so much about such a pressing conservation issue.  It was really a thrill!

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So this week, I’ll share some of the photos I took and facts I learned about the largest land mammal on Earth!

*I have a total academic crush on her! (and she’s an awesome person too, even though I’ve said a number of very stupid things in front of her**)

**Such as, “Literally every person I’ve met from Oxford is snobby.” While forgetting that she was educated at Oxford.***

***And also confusing Kenya with Botswana when I told her that I loved the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (in my defense, those books are seriously awesome)****

****Open mouth, insert foot is kind of a modus operandi for me, so I’ve learned to just roll with it

*****Don’t say it…this is the only time pun is not intended

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5 thoughts on “Elephant week: Elephants are scared of bees

  1. Great photos and I learned something! Thank you. Sorry you missed the march for science in the states. And, of course, happy Earth Day to my favorite scientist!

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