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Elephants' newly discovered fear of bees could help prevent run-ins with African farmers

Elephant JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Eek, a bee!

Lore has it that elephants are afraid of mice, but scientists have now discovered that elephants are truly afraid of bees -- and that the pachyderms even sound an alarm when they encounter them. The researchers hope this discovery can help save farmers' crops from elephants.

And they hope it will save elephants too.

Conflict between humans and elephants in countries like Kenya occur often. A single hungry elephant can wipe out a family's crops overnight. Farmers will huddle by fires all night during the harvest season. When an elephant nears, the farmers spring up with flaming sticks while their children bang on pots and pans. Not all fields can be guarded, and sometimes the elephants aren't frightened off.

Farmers sometimes kill elephants for raiding their crops. Rampaging elephants have also killed people, and they are then hunted down by park rangers.

The discovery that elephants emit low-frequency alarm calls around bees could help lessen these conflicts, said Lucy King, a researcher into animal behavior whose paper on elephants alarm calls was published in a journal of the Public Library of Science last week.

Farmers could make "bee fences" by stringing up hives on poles around 10 meters (yards) apart, King said. A strong wire connecting the poles would cause them to swing when an elephant walks into it, disturbing the bees. The swarm bothers elephants so much that they flee, emitting low rumblings inaudible to the human ear that warn other elephants nearby.

"It's impossible to cover Africa in electric fences," King said in an interview. "The infrastructure doesn't exist in many places and it would restrict animals' movement. This could be a better way to direct elephants away from farmers' crops."

King's findings are based on two separate experiments, part of a project by Oxford University and Save the Elephants. In the first, she played recorded bee sounds near elephants, causing them to flee. The researchers noticed that elephants distant from the sound also moved away, leading them to speculate the elephants were communicating an alarm below the range of human hearing.

Beehives For her second experiment, King hung ultra-sensitive microphones from trees. She recorded elephant rumblings over a two-month experiment in Kenya's Samburu park.

"We put the speaker in a bush quite away from the car. We didn't want to get charged by mistake," she said.

She then played the sounds back to elephants. When they heard the recorded rumblings they moved away, confirming the researchers' hunch about alarm calls.

King said further research is needed before her findings can be put to wide use. But she's hopeful they can help find a solution to some of the 1,300 complaints the Kenya Wildlife Service records about elephant-human contact each year. Many elephants in Africa don't live in the protected confines of a national park.

The findings have generated some excitement.

"This sort of initiative is very encouraging in helping prevent human wildlife conflict," said Paul Udoto, a spokesman for KWS.

RELATED ELEPHANT NEWS:
African countries' proposal to allow one-time sale of elephant ivory rejected at CITES conference
Programs to protect elephants may help keep China's small population from dying out

-- Katharine Houreld, Associated Press

Top photo: An elephant shakes its head upon hearing the sound of bees in Samburu National Park in 2007. Credit: Lucy King; Associated Press

Bottom photo: A beehive fence in Tsavo, Kenya. Credit: Lucy King; Associated Press

 
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