Elephants are afraid of bees

Elephants and bees, let’s explain. Of course elephants aren’t scared off by one or two bees, as the bees’ stingers can’t penetrate their thick hides. But when bees swarm — and African bees swarm aggressively — hundreds of bees might sting and damage an elephant in its most sensitive areas, the trunk, mouth and eyes.

Due to more human-elephant-conflict (HEC) over resources, both people and elephants have been killed over the last years. Elephants are killed by farmers trying to save their crops, or they allow poachers access to help guard their fields. On the other hand elephants that are wounded are often very dangerous and can go wild with pain which poses a great threat to anyone in their path. Elephants also have long memories and there is some evidence that elephants who have lost a family member due to conflict or culling may become more aggressive to humans in the future.

The threat of bees is so intensely felt by elephants that conservationists are using it to help prevent the kinds of conflict that put the elephants at risk.

Bee-hive fences

Over the past few years, researchers from the Elephants and Bees project have shown that they can keep 80 percent of elephants away from farmland by constructing bee fences around crops. Not only do the bees keep the elephants away, but the farmers get honey from the hives twice a year.

In most areas the concept of Beehive Fences is easily adopted, as beekeeping is an age-old activity that the majority of African communities already participate in. Traditional communities commonly harvest wild honey from wild hives and enjoy honey as a natural food source and sweetener. Although modern box hives and beekeeping is often new for our farmers, they adapt quickly to the simple skills needed to look after the hives and to harvest honey efficiently.

Eco-friendly honey

Indirectly, the project supports an increased honey bee population into farming areas. The farming includes negative activities such as overgrazing, land clearance and charcoal burning. Farmers might begin to see beekeeping as a more sustainable and financially viable alternative to charcoal burning as one tree can support many beehives for many years, but only produces one bag of charcoal once.

However, the technique is not fool-proof as the activity at the hives needs to be at a certain level before elephants take notice. Besides that, the hives are an added expense and take time and labor to maintain, meaning farmers may not be able to afford the hives or their upkeep.

An elephant repellant based on bees: eau de honeybees?

So research goes on and a better solution might be creating an elephant repellant based on bees. Professor Mark Wright (University of Hawaii at Manoa) and his research team are currently investigating the honeybee alarm pheromone’s potential in South Africa on both wild and semi-habituated elephants. The research group is using an innovative pheromone dispensing method developed by ISCA Technologies, in California. This research was conducted in collaboration with Elephants Alive at Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa between in 2017 and 2018.

The scientists exploited the chemical clues that occur in nature. Honeybee alarm pheromones consist of a blend of about 23 chemicals, this is what they call “eau de honeybees”. When a mammal appears to threaten a beehive, bees that perceive the threat release from their bodies “alarm” pheromones to marshal other bees to defend the hive. Production of this pheromone by honeybee guards increases the aggression levels of the rest of the colony, leading to the honeybee attack response and sting the mammal.

It is believed that elephants learned to recognize the odor of bee alarm pheromones and to back off when they come across them. The field trials on wild elephants in the Kruger Park showed that the elephants responded in a subtle yet distinct manner to the stimulus.

Now the researchers are turning their attention to semi-habituated elephants. These behavioural responses will be compared with the elephants’ responses to empty beehives, honeybee sounds and live honeybees. Therefore Elephants Alive teamed up in 2018 with Human Wildlife Solutions and Camp Jabulani to carry out the experimental trial on the semi-habituated elephants of the Jabulani Herd.

The significance of the work in the South African context: the Marula tree

There are many forms of human-elephant-conflict. In South Africa, Protected Areas managers and tourists alike are concerned that our expanding elephant population will negatively affect the number and structure of iconic tree species such as the Marula (Sclerocarya birrea).

They represent important fruit bearing trees as they are considered of cultural significance and economic importance and they play a vital role in the ecosystem, and with too many elephants around the damage can be detrimental.

The elephants strip the trees and shrubs often leaving the trees naked to die. In a part of the Greater Kruger National Park, there has been a decline of 35% of the marula trees since elephants have been introduced. The marula is a keystone species that provides feed and shelter to other species in the bush.

Elephants Alive have been studying the accumulated impact of elephants on large trees since 2004 and have looked at mitigation methods which could be used to increase the survival rate of large trees. One such method included using wire-net protection around the stem of the tree which diminishes its chance of being bark-stripped by elephants.

The next logical step was to partner up with Dr Lucy King from the Elephants and Bees Project to test the efficacy of African honeybees as a deterrent mechanism to keep elephants away from the iconic Marula tree.

In 2015 Elephants Alive asked Robin Cook, under the supervision of Michelle Henley, to test how effective African honeybees are at protecting iconic trees when compared to the tried and tested methods of wire-net protection which does increase the survival rate of tall trees favoured by elephants as food sources.

With great success, Elephants Alive has started to use bees to ward off the elephants. Just like people, elephants don’t like getting stung. They have an acute sense of smell and hearing – and are sensitive to bees.

Out of the 50 trees with beehives, only one was damaged during the past year.

The drought in South Africa has been hard for the bees and a special feeder with a sugar water drip system had to be designed, which could be regulated to keep them going. The relationship between elephants, bees and marula trees will be intriguing to observe as South Africa enters its driest months of the year and the elephants become more reliant on woody species for food.

Robin Cook hopes to adapt the hives and see if they can be used to protect other species of threatened trees like the baobab. He also wants to see if they will help protect the vulture population by putting the hives in trees with nests.

Cook is also involved in the field research in South-Africa mentioned above concerning the use of bee pheromones by scientists. The objective of is to test the efficacy of honeybee signals (sound and smell) as a deterrent mechanism to keep elephants away from important infrastructures, i.e. lodges, crops, select trees and fence lines.