As humans compete with wildlife for ever smaller areas, the likelihood for conflict between them grows. Unfortunately, this is a problem for the endangered African elephants, whose love for human crops has caused grief for both elephants and people. However, some creative research by a team from Oxford University has suggested a possible solution to the "elephant problem."
Elephants are not afraid of mice, but new research shows that they definitely fear the sound of bees because the angry insects can inflict painful stings inside sensitive elephant trunks. If elephants are truly afraid of African bees, this could be used to the farmers' advantage: many farmers view hungry elephants as crop pests due to their penchant for maize. Maize is the primary crop that feeds millions of hungry Africans, but the elephants often feast on the farmers' maize shortly before harvest.
But a research team from Oxford University wanted to test whether the sound of bees was an adequate elephant deterrent. To do this, they concealed loudspeakers in the shade trees where families of elephants regularly came to rest. After the animals arrived, the researchers played either the sound of buzzing bees or the sound of white noise, as a control.
Buzzing bees caused an immediate reaction: when the elephants heard the recording of buzzing bees, 94% left their chosen shade tree within 80 seconds -- nearly half at a run.
"Almost half of our study herds started to move away within 10 seconds of the bee playback," observed Lucy King, from Oxford University and who led the team.
White noise, by contrast, only scared away 27% of the elephants.
"So you could use sounds to deter elephants," noted King, "but there are two major hiccups.
"Firstly, farmers don't have money to pay for a loudspeaker and a minidisc, and on that level it's not practical. Secondly, elephants are smart and would work out that there are no painful beestings; we don't know if that would happen after three playbacks or 30, but it is clearly going to happen."
Thus, it would be better to deter marauding elephants using real African bees instead of a recording of their buzzing.
"We're a bit cautious about how effective this would be on a large scale," cautioned King.
Because the African bees are so aggressive, most rural communities might not wish to have them nearby, even with the added benefits of increased crop yields and honey production. Even King has been a victim of these aggressive African honeybees.
"I was just covered in the things, and they are very scary, very aggressive," she recalled.
"They sting you and they die; and when they sting you it releases a pheromone that encourages others to sting you. I was stung once on the jugular vein, so I've been very lucky."
So researchers are designing a "beehive fence" as a natural elephant deterrent where a wire would have a large number of beehives dangling from it. When an elephant jostles the wire, this would upset the bees, causing them to swarm after the elephants in defense of their hives.
King is also affiliated with the Kenya-based organization, Save the Elephants, whose goal is to develop a tolerant relationship between humans and African elephants.
The research is reported in the scientific journal Current Biology.
"African elephants run from the sound of disturbed bees" by Lucy E. King, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, and Fritz Vollrath. Current Biology 17 (19): R832-R833, 09 October 2007. (doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.07.038 )
Good news for the people with crops. Yet more bad news for elephants. It may save their lives and the livelihoods of the people in Africa, but it's putting a band-aid on a bigger situation with no real remedy in sight.
One of the more interesting things to come out of this study wasn't reported in the press releases.
The single elephant group that didn't move away at the sound of the bees was unusually small - it consisted of a 20-year old male, a 14-year old female and a calf. In particular, it didn't have a matriarch - the old, experienced female that usually leads the group.
The authors speculate that this could mean that the fear of bees is a piece of knowledge that elephants learn from each other, by watching the reactions of experienced group members who lead the fleeing.
This could also mean that these three elephants happened to be part of the 6% group that aren't affected by the sound of the bees. Just purely by chance.
Actually, the 94% figure referred to GROUPS of elephants rather than individuals. And they only looked at 18 groups, so 94% of that was 17.
So out of the 18 elephant groups they studied, only one didn't move at the sound of the buzzing and that was the one with the three young members.
Aah.. This makes sense.