• Jenny Carless

The Birds, the Bees … and Elephants?

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

You might think that because elephants are so large, they aren’t afraid of too many other animals—and that’s mostly true. But it turns out that the little old honeybee can send elephants running.


Bees go after the sensitive areas at the tip of an elephant’s trunk and around the eyes, so elephants are afraid of them. People who are trying to protect elephants, by keeping human/animal conflicts down, are turning to honeybees for help.


Researchers from Save the Elephants (STE) and other groups have learned a lot over the past several years.


In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) honored Lucy King from Oxford University for devising a wire fence connected to apiaries that begin to buzz when an elephant trips the wire.


In 2012, STE partnered with an organization called Honeycare Africa to educate farmers on the use of beehive fences to deter elephants from their farms.


“Elephants are known to abhor areas with bees. That means farms with beehives will be safe and the owners are assured of getting a decent harvest in addition to getting some more money from the sale of honey,” said King (who at that time had become STE’s chief operations officer for Kenya).


This work is vital because we need to do everything we can to protect elephants, who are being killed in unprecedented numbers. Mostly, the elephant population decline is due to poachers, but local communities can turn on elephants, too, if the animals deprive them of their livelihood by ruining their crops. If beehive fences can keep elephants away from crops, the amount of human-elephant conflict will go down.


Learn more on the Save the Elephants website and in this article from The Star.


Just last month, researchers from STE and Disney announced new findings: African elephants are capable of making very specific alarm calls for different threats in their environment.


The STE article describes it this way: “When confronted with the threat of honeybees or humans, the elephants shape their vocalizations in unique ways for each threat, and listening elephants can perceive the differences and react appropriately. […]  When elephants hear the sounds of honeybees, they show some vigilance behavior, shake their heads (to knock away bees), and run away. They also make a distinctive ‘rumble’ vocalization that warns other elephants. When other elephants hear this rumble, they also shake their heads and run away.”


It’s all great news for elephants, who can use all the help they can get!


(P.S.: I realize that the bee in the photo may not be the same species as they’re talking about in Kenya.)



Photo by Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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