ELEPHANTS AND BEES: AN ECOLOGICAL RESPONSE TO AN ANTHROPOGENIC ISSUE

African elephant foraging on morning-glory flowers. Photo: National Geographic.

African elephant foraging on morning-glory flowers. Photo: National Geographic.

The ban on international ivory trade in the late 1980’s enacted by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, significantly reduced the anthropogenic effects on African elephants from the pressures of illegal poaching. However, this positive step in the conservation of one of the world’s most iconic mammal species has local farmers among Eastern and Southern Africa faced with a major dilemma.

As human habitation and agricultural industry expand across the African landscape, wildlife habitat becomes highly fragmented from its original state resulting in an overlap between human and wildlife range.  Elephant populations in particular have become severely impacted by this loss of available habitat. The encroaching agricultural land into historic elephant range has greatly influenced the prevalence of crop-raiding events. Local farmers are now faced with the difficult task to deter one of the world’s largest land mammals from destroying vital crop resources, posing a serious conservation issue in many parts of Africa. Over recent decades, there has been a growing fear and anger towards elephants as conflicts continue to impact the livelihood of local farmlands, further intensifying the difficulty in efficient conservation measures.

Kenyan farmer with beehive fence deterrent. Photo: L.E. King.

Kenyan farmer with beehive fence deterrent. Photo: L.E. King.

Research efforts focus on finding an effective deterrent mechanism that is both socially and economically suitable, particularly in conflict regions where high quality fencing is neither feasible nor affordable for small scale farms. However, in 2002, research began to investigate the behavior of elephants in response to encountering African honey bees within the natural habitats and found a strong relationship between trees occupied by honey bees and reduced herbivory rates by elephants1. Expanding from the results of this study, Dr. Lucy King of Oxford University and colleagues from the Kenyan-based elephant conservation group, “Save the Elephants”, began their assessment on the potential utility of African honey bees as a natural deterrent against crop-raiding elephants for small farms in Kenya.

Her experimental design was quite simple. King would encircle the study farm by suspending beehives 10 meters apart and interlinking the structures with fencing wire. If an elephant chose to pass the fencing in an attempt to get to the crop, the connecting wire would be snagged by the elephant’s chest or forelimbs, disrupting the attached beehives nearby. The agitation of a beehive would result in the resident guard bees to swarm the intruding elephant, often attacking vulnerable regions of the body such as the eyes, ears, and tip of the trunk2.

Figure 1. Variation in crop raiding incidents between farms with and without beehive fencing.  Farms with beehive fence experienced 86% fewer successful raids and 150% fewer raiding elephants than farms without beehive fence (3).

Figure 1. Variation in crop raiding incidents between farms with and without beehive fencing. Farms with beehive fence experienced 86% fewer successful raids and 150% fewer raiding elephants than farms without beehive fence (3).

Trial studies revealed a significant difference in the number of elephants to successfully raid crops between farms utilizing beehive fencing and farms that contained a traditional thorn-brush fencing. Farms without beehive fencing experienced 86% more raids than farms with beehive fencing (Figure 1). Further assessment identified that nearly 70% of successful crop-raiding intrusions where through traditional thorn-brush barriers as opposed to regions using the beehive fencing (Table 1)4. Despite data results, anomalies remain unanswered within the assessment. As the number of occupied beehives varies among farm fences, one must question whether the fleeing elephant’s response was truly due to the bee’s presence or the swaying movement of the suspended objects. Additionally, if occupied beehives don’t depict the efficiency of the fence, then further assessment should address a more cost effective number of beehives per coverage. Despite these anomalies, beehive fencing nevertheless showed to reduce successful crop-raiding incidences among farms.

Table 1. Comparison on the effectiveness of beehive fences to thorn barriers in farm invasions and exits by elephants (4).

Table 1. Comparison on the effectiveness of beehive fences to thorn barriers in farm invasions and exits by elephants (4).

The simple design had not only shown practicality as a deterrent, but revealed an opportunity to improve the efficiency in the small scale farming as well. The native honey bee has shown to increase pollination and production yields of the small scale farms through their active foraging. Bees were found to more frequently collect pollen from the abundant floral resources within the easily accessible crops than alternative vegetation. Though pollination effectiveness may vary between geographic regions, the high visitation rate from the bees influence the likelihood for successful pollination among the cultivated crops.

Furthermore, by incorporating African honey bees into the agricultural landscape, farmers are able to utilize the produced honey from the insects, a product to which can be sold for a profit. The revenue generated from the local honey provides an opportunity to diversify income in regions where seasonal dependency on crops dominate. The economic sustainability of the beehive fence is a direct indicator to the success or failure of its utility3. Revenue gained from the generated honey may ultimately be dependent on the demand and demographic structure of the region. However, with the income generated from the honey, farmers have the opportunity to compensate for the initial cost of the fence construction as well as any expenses to maintain the structure against crop-raiding elephants. Though beehive fencing cannot provide a perfect solution to eliminate all crop-raiding conflicts throughout Africa, its sustainable application offers a significant contribution to the available methods for reducing conflicts for small scale farms2.

At a time in life’s history where conservation protocol faces its most complex issues, researchers must seek out not only social, but economically suitable methods in response to emerging conflicts. As human populations continue to increase throughout rural Africa, human settlement and agricultural expansion will inevitably increase the prevalence of conflicts between human and elephants. While these conflicts have the potential to increase in frequency through time, local negative perceptions on the iconic mammal species are likely to parallel. In order to successfully improve local attitudes and perceptions toward the elephant populations, it is vital that research provide practical, low-cost solutions to human and elephant conflicts2. As a relatively new mechanism, one must take into account the possibility of elephant populations habituating to the deterrent method, of which would reducing the observed efficiency. However, beehive fencing as a natural elephant deterrent provides paramount insight to the benefits from interlinking ecological and economic interests to conservation. By understanding the vitality of these ecological complexities, conservation protocol is better suited to address current and anticipated obstacles at the forefront of human and wildlife conflicts.

  1. Vollrath, F., Douglas-Hamilton, I. (2002) African bees to control African elephants. Naturwissenschaften. 89, 508-511.
  1. King, L.E. (2013) Elephants and bees: could honey bees be effective deterrents for Asia’s crop-raiding elephants? Sanctuary Asia. 61-65.
  1. King, L.E., Lawrence, A., Douglas-Hamilton, I., Vollrath, F. (2009) Beehive fence deters crop-raiding elephants. African Journal of Ecology. 47, 131-137.
  1. King, L.E., Douglas-Hamilton, I., Vollrath, F. (2011) Beehive fence as effective deterrent for crop-raiding elephants: field trials in northern Kenya. African Journal of Ecology. 49, 431-439.
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