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The Bees & The Elephants

The Background…

There’s a major problem in Africa that’s been around since humans have inhabited the dark continent.   As is the case with most social ills in the world, mankind’s problems have adverse and subsequent affects on other species, as well as the environment.  The problem?  Humans’ need for land vs. the natural habitat of animals.

Over the last 75 years specifically, the human population in Africa has encroached upon the natural habitat of animals, with specific effects on elephants.  As human populations expand and require more living space (specifically farmland), the migratory routes of elephants are disrupted.  This causes elephants to raid and trample villages, almost always destroying crops, and in many cases injuring or killing villagers.  There’s never a good outcome for either humans or elephants during a confrontation.

Due to successful anti-poaching measures in Africa over the past 20 years, elephant populations have increased from their levels in the 1960s-1980s.  Add to that the increased human population as previously mentioned.  So farmers resort to desperate measures to protect their crops (their only source of food and income for the year—they are gambling that they can make it until the harvest to cash in), including poisoning and shooting elephants.  Farmers use Furadan, a poison so powerful that just 2 mL can kill a human being.  Since elephants generally raid at night, farmers are left in the dark trying to fend off elephants.  They throw rocks at the elephants or fire guns into the air, which then contributes to further aggression by the elephants.

Think about it:  You’re a poor farmer in Tanzania and you own 2 hectares of land (5 acres).  You plant tomatoes, potatoes, and corn to sustain your family through the whole year.  If drought or insect devastation doesn’t wipe you out, raiding elephants can.  You’re asleep one night halfway through the growing season when you’re awakened by the trumpeting and stampeding of an elephant family that’s raided your small farm.  They’re eating and trampling everything you own.  You’re wiped out in a matter of three minutes.  In western society, that wouldn’t seem like too serious of a problem.  But in developing nations it can literally mean the difference between life and death.  All in three minutes!

The Solution

Research had previously shown that elephants were scared of the African honeybee.  But that’s all it was—research.  OK, so we know elephants are scared of the African honeybee.  So are humans!  But it wasn’t until 2009 that these findings were expanded upon.  Experts from The University of Oxford, UK, and the charity Save the Elephants decided to find out if using beehives could deter elephants.

An initial study was conducted over the course of two years , with the results published in The African Journal of Ecology.

A beehive fence constructed in Kenya. Photo credit: Dr. Lucy King

A beehive fence constructed in Kenya. Photo credit: Dr. Lucy King

“Finding a way to use live beehives was the next logical step in finding a socially and ecologically sensitive way of taking advantage of elephants’ natural avoidance behaviour to bees to protect farmers’ crops,” said Dr Lucy King, the University of Oxford biologist who led the study.

“It was very exciting to see that our theoretical work has been converted into a practical application,” she said.

How it Works

Beehives are suspended via wires between posts approximately 10 meters apart, creating continuous fencing around farms.  When elephants attempt to penetrate the boundary, they hit the posts or wires and agitate the bees.  The sound of the bees is a natural deterrent to elephants.  Bees cannot sting through the hide of an elephant, but they can sting around the eyes and inside the trunk

A drawing of the suspended beehives used in Kenya.

A drawing of the suspended beehives used in Kenya.

The Oxford study was conducted over three growing seasons, utilizing 170 beehives along 1,700 meters of fencing, around 17 farms.  There were 32 attempted penetrations by the elephants over the three growing seasons, with only once successful raid by a bull elephant.

If you’re wondering about the impact of farmers and children on beehives (or beehives on farmers and children), it’s been reported that there has been no adverse consequences to date of violent reactions between humans and the hives.  And, what’s even more humorous is that during the study, the beehives were not even occupied with bees!  Research has shown that just the sight of a beehive or the recorded sounds of swarming bees is enough to deter elephants.

It takes about 24 hives to surround the boundary of a one acre farm.  Since the cost of filling and maintaining that many hives is sometimes prohibitive, “dummy” hives are sometimes used.  These are empty hives spaced every other hive around the boundary of a farm.  As previously mentioned, just the sight of a hive will deter an elephant.

A line of beehives created as a boundary around a farm in Kenya.

A line of beehives created as a boundary around a farm in Kenya.

The Benefits

The obvious benefits are:

  • Farmers don’t have to worry about losing their crops
  • Elephants do not face confrontations with villagers
  • There is little to no harm to the elephants in keeping them off of farms

But there are two bigger benefits:

  • Such a simple solution addresses and solves such a big problem.  It’s rare that a problem in developing nations is solved without one agency or another throwing lots of money at it in an attempt to “do something.”
  • Last but certainly not least, having beehives allows farmers to harvest and/or sell honey for increased income.  And honey is a natural sugar.  If you’re not aware, purchasing such a simple staple as sugar in developing nations is often cost prohibitive.


Check out other posts in the Social Justice category, or posts about Habitat for Humanity in the Global Village category.


© 2022 Shane Werle