Elephants To Be Saved By Bees

Elephants do not like bees. Indeed just the sound of an angry bee is enough to make whole herds of mighty elephants flee in fear.

Now African scientist Lucy King has been awarded one of the United Nations’ top environmental prizes for using that knowledge in work which could help ensure the elephants’ survival.

Michelle Henley, from Save the Elephants, says while the African savannah elephant may be the biggest land animal on the planet, it is a complete wimp when it comes to the first buzz from a bee.

“Elephants, and especially the matriarchs of family units, are very protective of their little ones and the entire herd, so they will try and avoid any dangerous situation,” she said.

“Although [they are] pachyderms and they’ve got thick skins … in certain places the skin is actually quite sensitive, around the eyes and the ears for instance. And a bee sting can be quite painful to them.

“Elephants do about 70 per cent of their breathing through their trunks. Often bees are attracted to moisture so I can imagine if a bee is to crawl up the trunk of an elephant and sting it it will be very discomforting to that animal.

“And that’s why I think that matriarchs will do their best to teach their entire family to avoid bees.”

To find out whether elephants shied away from bees, researcher Lucy King set up speakers to play recordings of African bee swarms to 18 elephant families.

Audio: Bees win in battle with elephants (AM)
They all had one thing in common. On hearing the hum, they stopped what they were doing and together all turned tail and fled.

Ms Henley says the discovery has the potential to reduce conflict with pastoralists and farmers by keeping them off their land.

“I think it will avoid human-elephant conflict and possibly change elephant distribution in certain areas,” she said.

“So it’s a powerful natural tool to control elephant distribution. So I think it has huge potential in many avenues.”

Ms Henley says there should not be any danger to farmers or other issues related to keeping bees.

“I suppose the biggest danger actually would be a natural threat, such as droughts. I can imagine that it’s difficult to keep bees during a drought,” she said.

“But there shouldn’t be a danger. In Kenya bees are an extremely valuable resource. I mean, one beehive is worth as many as seven cattle. So I think a farmer would welcome a beehive on his property.

“It’s been successfully tested. And so I know Lucy King is now bottling the honey that’s coming from these beehives.

“It’s a win-win situation for all because she’s actually enabling the honey to be sold and the money goes back to the people that are supporting the initiative. So I think it’s a fantastically innovative way to look at human-elephant conflict.

While audio recordings were played while the research was carried out, it seems the real thing is what is needed in the long-term.

Elephants may fall for it once but they are not likely to fall for the same trick twice.

They do remember.

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