Whatâ€™s the News: Weâ€™ve all probably heard the myth, made popular by Disneyâ€™s Dumbo, that elephants are afraid of mice. While that idea may not be exactly true (video), elephants do make sure to avoid another tiny critter: bees. Knowing this, zoologists from the University of Oxford loaded fences in Kenya with beehives, in hopes of deterring roaming African elephants from eating or trampling farmersâ€™ crops. Now, two years later, the researchers are reporting in the African Journal of Ecology that the novel barriers are working wondrously and could be a viable option for protecting African croplands.
Whatâ€™s the Context:
- Oxford zoologist Lucy King first learned in 2007 that honeybeesâ€”and even just the recorded sound of their buzzingâ€”can scare off African elephants. Although a bee stinger cannot penetrate an elephantâ€™s thick skin, elephants learn to avoid bees because the little insects gravitate toward their eyes and the insides of their trunks. Elephants will even sound a low-frequency alarm call when they encounter bees, causing other nearby elephants to back away, too.
- Since the U.N. banned international ivory trade in 1989, the population of the endangered African elephant has slowly made a comeback in Kenya. But the animals will often stumble upon farmland, leading to sometimes deadly conflicts with humans: a few dozen elephants and people die each year from their clashes (via Wired).
- Researchers have tried other types of barriers, such as thorn bushes or rows of capsicum chili peppers (whose smell elephants canâ€™t stand), but those defenses havenâ€™t really worked, according to conservation biologist Dave Balfour.
How the Heck:
- King and her colleagues chose a region in Kenya that often suffers from human-elephant conflicts. With the help of the local Turkana community, they built beehive fences around 17 farms and thorn-bush barriers around 17 other farms. In over two years, elephants tried to invade the farms 45 times; they successfully broke through the thorn-bush barriers 31 times, but breached the beehive fences only once.
- Along with protected croplands, the farmers have gained extra income by selling honey. The honey money allows them to purchase new clothes and additional food.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Hans Hillewaert