How Honeybees Could Help Save Local Farms from Elephant Attacks

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It's amazing where a research grant can take you. Often it's not just about Gravitational Waves or stuffy labs, but actually getting out there to improve the lives of global communities.

One such project was headed by the University of Oxford in order to combat one of the alarming side affects of the successful elephant conservation effort. 

So what's the problem?

Fences don't always work...
In many places of Africa, elephant populations are improving after decades of hard-fought conservation efforts and actions against poaching. While this is fantastic news for the growing elephant populations, it has left the local farmers increasingly vulnerable to elephant attacks. Some herds return to old migratory routes only to find small farms in their way which they then plough through, while others find themselves coming up against humans when hunger sets in and the crop-laden fields are too hard to resist. In both cases both animal and human are at serious risk: with their livelihood and safety on the line farmers can do little else but face down the huge creatures themselves, armed with whatever they can find. In some cases this means shooting the elephants, and in others it means making a enough noise in an effort not to shoot them that it simply scares the elephants and gets the farmers killed. Non violent deterrents like cow-bell fences can do little but simply warn farmers that elephants are coming, and more effective methods like tall electric fences are simply far too expensive for the majority of communities. A hungry elephant is a determined one, and a frightened or angry elephant is a horror.

The answer to the problem was surprisingly simple.

Anyone who loves elephants will tell you that we have a lot in common: elephants are intelligent and some people even think that they can mourn. However, their most famous feature is their decades long memory and they, like us, often remember experiences that are unpleasant and will learn from them.

Enter the humble honeybee.

When a person is stung by a bee they learn quickly to spot the signs of the insects nearby and will actively avoid hives - after all, once you've encountered an angry bee it's not a situation that you'd like a repeat of. Elephants, despite their size and tough skin, also hate bees as the tiny creatures can swarm and sting their sensitive eyes, trunks and ears. Like us, they'll give hives a very wide berth indeed, and encourage their friends to do the same. The university looked into this phenomenon, working with local farming communities to experiment with the idea of using bees as a deterrent but in a way that farmers could afford, maintain and actually use to improve their lives in addition to keeping the dangerous animals away in a peaceful faction. The solution was to make a fence of living buzzing beehives.

A fence of langstroth hives

Researchers found that just the sound of bees was enough to keep 94% of animals studied away from the area. Moving on to the real thing, a study of 34 communally-run Kenyan farms found that when they adopted the bee-fence method, only one elephant actually crossed the beehive fence out of a total of 45 attempted raids. It seemed to work.

The main challenge was to figure out a way of creating a beehive fence that fit the needs of the farming communities who owned them. The researchers worked with them and created a pamplet that outlines how to construct and maintain these fences, giving them three design options of increasing effectiveness and price. In each option, the hives are linked together and separated 6m apart. Because elephants would learn to recognise the hives on sight, not every 'fence post' needs to be an active hive, and dummy hives can be created. Each construction needsa thatched roof to keep it shaded and dry, and allows for honey collection so that the farmers can supplement their income. 
The cheapest option is the traditional log hive: effectively a log suspended with a roof. This design makes honey collection difficult and inefficient, but was ideal for poorer farmers who can scavenge the main materials from the landscape. The medium-priced option is the top-bar hive which requires more construction effort and costs around $35 per hive, but allows for easier honey collection and protects the larvae within. Finally the most expensive option was the purpose-designed  langstroth beehives (pictured above) which come in at about $60 per hive, but are the most sophisticated examples for honey collection and provide the greatest quality honey. The farmers have the ability to pick the option that suits them best while also investing in a new form of income in the form of Elephant Friendly Honey.

Construction of a top bar hive

In short, this simple solution saves lives; human, elephant and even bee. What's not to love?

It may have taken a whole research project to bring it to light, but this simple solution is just about as natural and wholesome as you can get.

So now you know. If life gives you trouble....

 - REF Impact case study: UOA05-20 Using Honey bees as an effective deterrent for crop raising elephants.
-Beehive Fence Construction Manual
- Using honeybees to keep elephants out of farmer's fields
-BBC Earth news: beehive fence deters elephants
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