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Beehive Fence Encourages Elephant Raiders to Buzz Off

A fence made out of beehives wired together has been shown to significantly reduce crop raids by elephants, Oxford University scientists reported today. “Our previous research has shown that elephants are scared away by recordings of the buzzing of angry bees,” said Lucy King of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, who led the project in...

A fence made out of beehives wired together has been shown to significantly reduce crop raids by elephants, Oxford University scientists reported today.

“Our previous research has shown that elephants are scared away by recordings of the buzzing of angry bees,” said Lucy King of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, who led the project in collaboration with the charity Save the Elephants. “We designed the beehive fence as an affordable and practical way of applying this knowledge to create a barrier that the elephants would be afraid to cross.”

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Member of the construction team with the beehive fence built for the pilot study.

Photo courtesy OU/Lucy King

The fence is constructed of log beehives suspended on poles beneath tiny thatched roofs (to keep off the sun). The hives are connected by 26-foot (8-meter) lengths of fencing wire. “Elephants avoid the hives and will attempt to push through the wire, but this causes the hives to swing violently causing the elephants to fear an attack of angry bees,” says a statement issued by Oxford University.

The results of a pilot study in Kenya, published in the African Journal of Ecology, show that a farm protected by the beehive fence had 86 per cent fewer successful crop raids by elephants and significantly fewer raiding elephants than a control farm without the fence, Oxford said.

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Local farmers with the beehive fence.

Photo courtesy OU/Lucy King

“The reduction occurred despite the fact that none of the hives were occupied at the time, suggesting that elephants remember painful past encounters with African honeybees and avoid the sights and smells associated with them.”

   “Despite their thick hides, adult   elephants can be stung around their eyes or up their trunks.”

Despite their thick hides adult elephants can be stung around their eyes or up their trunks, whilst calves could potentially be killed by a swarm of stinging bees as they have yet to develop this thick protective skin, Oxford said.

Earlier work by Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Fritz Vollrath–who also cotributed to Lucy King’s study–had suggested that elephants prefer to steer clear of beehives.

In a 2007 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 yards 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 moved that fast,” Oxford University said.

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Crop-raiding bull elephant “Genghis Khan” (right) with GPS tracking collar visible at the back of his head.

Photo courtesy OU/Lucy King

During the six-week pilot study of the efficacy of a beehive fence, the team used GPS to track one particularly notorious elephant raider dubbed “Genghis Khan.” The bull elephant was spotted raiding by several farmers and was observed among a herd of 18 bulls returning from crop raids, and his GPS movements were shown to closely match the routes of the raiding groups, Oxford said.

The reaction from the farmers involved in the pilot study has been very positive,” King said. “Our beehive fence design has been shown to be robust enough to survive elephant raids and cheap enough for farmers to construct themselves–especially as it also gives protection against cattle rustlers and, when occupied by colonies of African honeybees, will give the farmers two or three honey harvests a year that they can sell to offset the cost of building the fence.”

Said Lucy King, “We hope that these results will encourage farmers in other areas losing crops to elephant raiders to build their own beehive fences and help to reduce the conflict between humans and elephants that can lead to the tragedy of animals being shot, as well as farmers suffering devastating losses to the crops that are their livelihood.'”

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