Bee buzz could scare away elephants

8 October 2007

Almost half of the groups we studied moved away within seconds of the bee buzz being turned on.

Lucy King

Strategically placed beehives might offer a natural elephant deterrent in areas where humans are encroaching on elephant ranges, according to Oxford University scientists.

Experiments carried out by Oxford University’s Lucy King and colleagues in Samburu National Reserve, Northern Kenya, demonstrated that a significant majority of elephants fled as soon as they heard the sound of aggressive bees played from a disguised loudspeaker. The group’s study, published in Current Biology, supports the idea that bees, and indeed perhaps even just their buzz, might be used to keep elephants at bay.

“We expected the elephants to respond to the threatening sound of disturbed bees, but we were really surprised by the speed of their reaction,’ said Lucy King who undertook the study as part of her PhD. ‘Almost half of the groups we studied moved away within seconds of the bee buzz being turned on. This suggests that they already knew the sound and really did not like it.’ Lucy King is affiliated with Oxford’s Department of Zoology (where she works with Professor Fritz Vollrath) and Save the Elephants (www.savetheelephants.org), a conservation organisation founded and run by Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton.

Earlier studies by Dr Douglas-Hamilton and Professor Fritz Vollrath had suggested that elephants prefer to steer clear of beehives.

In this new study Lucy King tested the response of known elephants to the buzz of disturbed local African bees recorded digitally. Sixteen of the 17 family groups that were tested during their noon time nap left their resting places under trees within 80 seconds of hearing the bee sound coming from a speaker ten metres away. Significantly, eight of the groups fled within just ten seconds of hearing the bees whilst not one of the groups that heard the control sound of natural white noise (taken from a waterfall) moved that fast. Indeed, of the 15 control groups only four were sufficiently bothered by the unexpected white noise to move at all within 80 seconds.

These valuable experiments are beginning to outline a new tool in the growing armoury of non-lethal elephant deterrents available to farmers. ‘It is vital that we find new approaches so that we avoid extreme solutions such as shooting problem animals,’ said Lucy King. ‘More research is needed to understand to what extent beehives could be used to keep away elephants but we are hopeful that this approach might work. Using bees in this way would enable local farmers to reduce elephant crop-raiding and tree destruction while at the same time providing some income through the sale of honey. This would be a valuable and significant step towards sustainable human-elephant coexistence.’

Earlier work by Dr Douglas-Hamilton and Professor Fritz Vollrath showed that on a ranch in Kenya’s Laikpia District, trees hosting beehives were damaged significantly less than trees without bees. In Zimbabwe, Loki Osborne and collaborators found that elephants would avoid a beehive placed on their raiding trail to a field of maize. Similar observations were made by farmers in Nepal, this time about raiding Indian elephants, according to a local beekeeper who emailed the team.

For further information contact the University of Oxford Press Office on 01865 283877 or by email at press.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

 

Notes to editors

  • A report of the research is published in the 9 October issue of the journal Current Biology.