We were lied to! Who remembers being told that elephants are scared of mice when they were little? Turns out, it was a lie!
Turns out that elephants are afraid of something much smaller than mice- Honey bees! I bet you’re wondering how that can be when the skin of an adult elephant is up to 2 ½ centimeters thick. That’s an inch thick to you and me.
But Why the Bees?
Africanized honey bees are very aggressive. If africanized bees even remotely sense a threat, they are prone to attacking en masse. African elephants are terrified of these bees. Even with their thick skin, elephants can be hurt by bees. Think eyes, mouth, and nose. These tissues are very vulnerable on elephants. And getting stung hurts. I can’t even begin to imagine being stung in the eye or inside the nose.
Add to that the fact that some specialists speculate that a very young calf, whose skin is much more easily penetrated, could be killed if it were to be attacked by a hive. Even an adult could be hurt if swarmed by enough bees. Knowing this, and coupled with the fact that elephants are very protective of each other, you know that’s not something elephants will let happen if they can help it. Even Asian elephants have a fear of bees. Their fear of bees is real, though not as profound as for African elephants. This difference is like due to the fact that Asian honey bees are relatively docile, and much less likely to attack than Africanized honey bees.
It turns out that elephants are so averse to bees, that they will go to great lengths to avoid them. They can hear a single buzzing bee almost 600 meters away, and African elephants have a specialized call to let other elephants know about the bee danger.
The Opportunity for Change
This fear of bees was noticed in 2002. People are beginning to use the elephant’s fear of bees to good use in an ingenious solution that benefits people, bees, and the elephants themselves. The first bee fence was put in place in 2012.
14 countries in Africa and Asia now encourage farmers to use bee fences to protect crops and property from elephants. Bee fencing entails placing beehives approximately 65 feet apart, around the perimeter of the property. The hives are interconnected, so that crossing the perimeter triggers the hives to sway, and the bees to buzz and fly. The initial cost of fencing a 1 acre farm is approximately $1,000. That’s only about one fifth the cost for electric fencing, and no onsite electricity is required.
The benefits of bee fencing for elephants, bees, and people are numerous, while the negative effects are few. They include, but are not limited to those listed below.
For the elephants:
- Reduced confrontations with people
- Decrease in elephant deaths and injury
- Reduction in animosity of people towards elephants
- A slowing of sprawl and deforestation (since additional bee fencing costs money to put in) which means a slowing in loss of habitat
For the honey bees, which are seeing declines in many areas of the world:
- An increase in the number of hives
- A vested interest of humans to establish, tend, and protect beehives.
For the people:
- Decrease in death or injury from confronting an elephant
- Reduction in the loss of crops/increase in crop yields
- Reduced property damage
- An additional resource in the forms of crop pollination, and harvestable honey.
The biggest negative that we could find mentioned:
- An additional cost to farmers in the maintenance of the beehives and fencing
The solution is not foolproof (about an 80% success rate if hives and fencing are maintained). And it isn’t free with the initial cost of fencing for an acre of farm being approximately $1,000, and maintaining the established hives costs some money. This has led some to look for other bee inspired solutions.
Where Else Could the Bee Fence Help?
In India, where elephants are killed or injured every year when they wonder onto train tracks, the most troublesome areas of some tracks have been fitted with speakers that transmit a buzzing sound. Called ‘Plan Bee’ by the Indian government, this program has been effective at reducing the number of train elephant collisions in India.
And in South Africa, research is being done to develop a bee pheromone based elephant repellent. Initial work has already been done, showing that pheromones that are released by bees when they become distressed are effective at keeping elephants away from watering holes that they normally frequent.
If you would like to help in the construction of more bee fences, click on this link for the Elephants & Bees Project. There are also links below for some pertinent articles on the use of bees to repel elephants.
Smithsonian.com article detailing bee pheromone use as opposed to live hives