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Interview: Lucy King talks bees & elephants

Pete Wilton

Lucy KingLucy King

Working in Kenya, Lucy King found that the buzz of angry bees acts as a natural elephant deterrent. We caught up with Lucy to discuss her research, the huge media interest it generated and ask: what else scares off a 6-tonne pachyderm?

OxSciBlog: Why is keeping elephants away from people so important?
Lucy King:
People and wildlife used to live side by side in Africa and in my study site, Kenya, there are still strong traditional and cultural bonds with elephants. However, as the human population has continued to develop and expand, elephants are being squashed into smaller and smaller home ranges often with key migratory corridors being cut off by man made structures such as roads, schools, farms, bore holes and factories. Due to this developing infrastructure pastoralists in Kenya are being encouraged to settle down and grow crops. This massive change in landscape use has caused conflict with elephants who are still trying to utilise the full scope of their traditional home ranges. Elephants that come across farms full of ripe tomatoes, potatoes and maize won't hesitate to break in and start feeding and this is where the conflict begins. Farmers will do anything to keep their crops and families safe from damage and unfortunately records of shootings, spearings and poisonings of elephants are on the increase. Our project work is trying to come up with a low-tech deterrent method that will not only keep elephants away from fields of crops but will also enhance the income of farmers through the sale of bee products.

OSB: How did you discover their fear of the sound of angry bees?
LK: On the back of his successful paper in 2002 which showed that elephants avoided trees with beehives in, my supervisor, Prof Fritz Vollrath, did a rather unique pilot experiment using bee sounds. There was a semi-tame African elephant on one of the ranches in Kenya that had been badly stung by a bee swarm the year before. Fritz played bee sounds at this elephant to see what would happen and he really freaked out and ran away. This triggered off several research questions which is what my DPhil is now based on. The key attribute we are working with is the incredible memory that elephants have showing that a past negative experience with bees can be remembered by elephants years later and results in a retreating behaviour. I am now trying to understand this behaviour better by conducting more formal, controlled sound trials and our initial results were published in Current Biology in October 2007.

OSB: Why are elephants, with their thick hides, scared of bee stings?
LK: Elephants can't be stung through their hides but bees are attracted to the water around their eyes which is a weak spot for stings. More importantly we know that elephants can disturb wild beehives as they forage up in the branches of trees and bees can get into and sting the inside of their sensitive trunks. We have stories from people who have witnessed this unfortunate event and the elephant was described as going 'berserk' trying to get the bee out of the trunk! Must be terribly painful and not something an elephant would forget in a hurry. We are also not sure if elephant calves would have thick enough skins to deter bee stings. If not, its understandable that mothers would be very wary about letting their young ones get too close to a wild African beehive.

OSB: How might hives be used as a natural elephant deterrent?
LK: We are working on a unique design for a beehive fence which has gone through a successful pilot project stage. We are now planning a larger scale trial with more farms to see if this could be a potential solution for keeping elephants away from crops (or at least lessen the crop-raiding damage). I'm also testing the idea that beehives offer some deterrent effect to trees on the back of Fritz's work in 2002.

OSB: What else scares off an elephant?
LK:  Well, not much to be honest! Lions are generally chased away by elephants during the day but at night they can attack and kill young elephant calves so we know elephants are less successful against lions at night. Other things that seem to scare elephants away, at least initially, are fire, torches, dogs, bangers and bullets.

OSB: Have you had any close calls with elephants yourself?
LK: Yes, quite a few actually although all my fault for getting to close. We had one female elephant charge us as we were clearing some dung away from a tree experiment we were doing. She shot around the bush faster than you can imagine with ears out and trumpeting SO loudly! Luckily the car was very close by and we had to leap in and keep very still until she calmed down. Her trumpeting triggered her whole family to come out of the bush and they all started trumpeting and ear flapping at us in the car circling around us and basically showing us who was boss! Another time we were charged by a large bull in musth who was just bulging with testosterone and energy. I was in such a rush to get away from him that I had to drive my landrover up over a sandy ridge which slowed him down a bit. I went about 300 meters before realising that I was still in 1st gear and the screaming of my engine probably scared him off more than my deterrent tactics! Generally the elephants we work with are gentle and caring beasts but there is no harm in being reminded occasionally that we should be careful not to intrude into their space.

OSB: Were you surprised at the media interest? Any tricky questions?
LK: The media interest was enormous and we were very surprised by the extent of the interest, particularly from overseas countries as far as Indonesia, India, Australia, America, Canada and Brazil. We didn't get too many tricky questions although some journalists seemed to get stuck on the idea that if elephants are scared of bees they could also be scared of mice which was amusing but rather off the point! Discovery Channel came and did a live television interview with me from my house in Nairobi for their Canadian programme 'Daily Planet' which was quite an experience.

OSB: What's the latest on your research?
LK: We are concentrating on a large scale field trial of our beehive fence idea which will be crucial to see if the idea works in practice. I'm also collaborating with Disney's Wildlife Conservation Fund scientists to expand and develop our sound experiments. It's a very exciting time and I'm only just starting my second year of my DPhil so there is plenty of time left for more discoveries!

Lucy King is currently a DPhil Researcher in Oxford University's Animal Behaviour Research Group