Elephants to "Buzz Off" Bees' Territory

Author:  Hoi See Tsao
Institution:  Wellesley College
Date:  October 2007

Apart from the ability to cause fear and sometimes anaphylactic shock in humans, bees can now add elephants to their list of "victims." Researchers from Oxford University recently reported in Current Biology that recordings of angry African bees caused elephants to quickly leave the immediate vicinity. African bees owe their elephant-repellant powers to their ability to sting the interior of the elephants' trunks, resulting in elephants' learned behavior to avoid bees.

In an interview with BBC News, lead researcher Lucy King speculated that the "bees may become one deterrent that farmers could use in the right situation," especially as elephants often eat farmers' maize, the principle crop in much of Africa, just before harvest time.

To test their hypothesis, researchers hid loudspeakers in the trees of the elephants' usual resting places. Either the buzzing of bees recorded at beehives, or a white noise control, was then played while the elephants rested. The white noise control led to 27% of elephants leaving. However, within 80 seconds of the start of the buzzing bees recording, 94% of the elephant families had vacated the area.

"So you could use sounds to deter elephants," said Dr Lucy King, "but there are two major hiccups.Firstly, farmers don't have money to pay for a loudspeaker and a minidisc, and on that level it's not practical. Secondly, elephants are smart and would work out that there are no painful beestings; we don't know if that would happen after three playbacks or 30, but it is clearly going to happen." Dr. Lucy King feels that the usage of real bees rather than recordings would probably be more practical and desirable in the long-term.

Another of the research group's projects involves the use of a "beehive fence" in Kenya. When an elephant passed by the "beehive fence," the bees would fly and buzz. This would effectively scare the elephant away and deter it from returning. In one set-up, a chain of hives was suspended from the fence. When an elephant walked by, the elephant's leg would hit the wires that were connected to the chain and provoke the bees' fury.

Apart than possibly increasing crop yields by deterring the approach of elephants, the bees could also provide honey for rural communities' personal consumption or sale. However, as Dr. Lucy King testifies, African bees have an aggressive nature and can cause painful stings. "I was just covered in the things, and they are very scary, very aggressive.They sting you and they die; and when they sting you it releases a pheromone that encourages others to sting you. I was stung once on the jugular vein, so I've been very lucky."

The team's research was partially funded by the organization Save the Elephants. The organization's mission is to "develop a tolerant relationship between the two species" of African elephants and humans.

Author: HoiSee Tsao

Published by: Konrad Sawicki