Scientific American looks at scientific Kenyans, who have taken advantage of one of the few things elephants are actually afraid of – stinging honeybees – to keep their fields safe from pillaging pachyderms:
[Save The Elephants zoologist Lucy] King eventually realized what now seems obvious: for the bees to scare elephants, the insects must be swarming. King asked her research assistant to chuck a stone at the hive, “and then suddenly, the bees just erupted,” King says. “And the elephants just fled.”
That aha! moment led King to sketch a novel design for using live beehives as “fences” to protect farm crops from foraging elephants. The goal was to reduce human-elephant conflicts, which increased significantly in parts of Africa in the 2000s. Kenya has seen some recovery of its population of the pachyderms in recent decades, thanks to conservation efforts there—although the total population of African elephants has declined dramatically in the same time period, King says. Meanwhile sub-Saharan Africa’s human population rose from about 870 million to 1.1 billion people between 2010 and 2020, according to the World Bank. The upshot has been a rise in hotspots where people and elephants compete for space and food.
In an attempt at a nonlethal solution, nearly 10,000 beehive fences like those in King’s initial sketches are now built into sites in 20 African and Asian countries, she estimates. STE team members focus on providing bee-fence kits to farmers in the epicenter of the human-elephant conflicts in Africa, often near game reserves. Each kit includes 12 beehives and 12 dummy hives. The latter double the number of objects that resemble hives to elephants, eventually stretching out the effect without the added expense and upkeep. Hives are suspended from wires hanging between wooden posts. If an elephant tries to enter a farm, it walks into the wires, shaking the hives and triggering a swarm. STE covers the cost of the kits—around $1,200 per acre of crops. King expects each kit to last 10 years.
Meanwhile bee fences have provided some farmers with new income. As part of the STE program, they are taught beekeeping and provided with protective gear such as suits, smokers, rubber boots and gloves. Selling honey can add $50 to $200 to a family’s income per harvest, which usually occurs twice a year, King says.