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Guardian Bees Protect Kenyan Crops from Roaming Elephants

What’s the News: We’ve all probably heard the myth, made popular by Disney’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 farmers’ 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.

What’s the Context:

  • Oxford zoologist Lucy King first learned in 2007 that honeybees—and even just the recorded sound of their buzzing—can scare off African elephants. Although a bee stinger cannot penetrate an elephant’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 can’t stand), but those defenses haven’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.
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