What Are Elephants Really Scared Of?

May 16th, 2015

A herd of elephants in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.

By David Brown

An elephant herd leisurely grazes through a savanna in central Kenya. A small elephant calf playfully chases his older sister through the brush while their mother, the matriarch (leader) of the herd, strips bark from a large acacia tree with her tusks and grabs leaves with her trunk. As the matriarch approaches the next tree buffet she suddenly halts. She starts shaking her head and throwing dust over her shoulder, signs of great agitation. She sounds an alarm call and the entire herd of a dozen elephants runs shrieking away from the trees.

There are no lions or other predators around, and there are no people – these are the things that usually agitate elephants and make them run away.

What could be threatening the elephants and make them go screaming away from the trees?

Dr. Lucy King has studied that question. It turns out that it was something small that scares elephants when they get close to certain trees.

A mouse? No, it is only a myth that elephants are scared of mice.

Bees. Elephants are scared of bees. African honeybees are very aggressive. They form swarms of thousands of bees that attack any animal that gets too close to their hives. They sting their victim as a single unit, delivering thousands of stings within seconds.

These attacks can kill people, but are they enough to kill or harm an elephant? “Yes,” says Dr. King. “It seems that over the millennia elephants have learned to avoid trees with beehives. We think this must have come from elephants trying to forage in Acacia trees, accidentally knocking open a wild beehive and as a consequence being stung in the face, around the eyes and up the trunk.”

Dr. King collected data to show that elephants are afraid of bees. “We have collected a lot of anecdotal stories about this from herdsmen, farmers and rangers who have witnessed elephants being stung by wild bees. They run away as quickly as possible!” she explains. “I recorded the sound of very disturbed angry bees and played it back to families of elephants resting under trees using a hidden wireless speaker system to see how they might react should a wild hive be disturbed nearby. They ran away just like the anecdotes suggested. I’ve witnessed one family running from real beehives and it’s true – they just get out of there as fast as possible.”

Elephants running from bees! Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.

An elephant family runs from bees. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.

In the region of Kenya where Dr. King studied elephants and bees there are sometimes conflicts between elephants and farmers. Dr. King explains what some of those problems are: “Elephants pose all kinds of social, economic and financial problems for farmers. They break open water pipes, knock down grain stores, break into houses where food is stored and of course crop-raid and trample crops that are still growing in the farms too.”

A thought occurred to Dr. King: could the fear that elephants have of bees possibly be used to help prevent conflicts between elephants and farmers? She worked with local farmers to figure out how bees might be used to keep elephants away from the farms. They developed an idea to use bees as a sort of alarm to scare away elephants by incorporating beehives into fences around fields that elephants would like to raid.

“In our study site in Kenya we are using beehive fences to reduce conflict between farmers and elephants,” says Dr. King. “The beehive fences consist of beehives strung every 10 meters around the boundary of a farm, which are interlinked with a strong piece of plain wire. Should an elephant try to pass between the hives to access the farm, the wire knocks into the body of the elephant causing each beehive on either side of him to swing, releasing the bees and scaring away the elephant.”

A beehive fence. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.

A family uses a beehive fence to scare away elephants and stop them from eating their crops. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.

A group checks up on a beehive fence. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.

The beehive fence not only keeps elephants away from the farms, but has positive economic benefits for the farmers too. Dr. King explains the benefits that the bees provide the farmers: “The beehive fence is therefore reducing crop-raids into the farms, allowing an increase in crop yield from each of the farms, increased pollination of the crops from the presence of more bee pollinators AND the bees produce extremely valuable honey and bee products that the farmer can sell as an additional income.”

Elephants may not like beehive fences, but Dr. King’s view is that they have helped both elephants and people by reducing conflict between them. “We are seeing a significant attitude change now amongst our participating farmers – they feel much more able to cope with elephants on their own compared to before when they did not have a protective beehive fence around them. We feel it’s a real win-win solution for small-scale farmers in Africa living right next to elephant habitat areas.”

Dr. Lucy King holds some of the honey made by bees living in the beehive fences. Photo courtesy of Dr. Lucy E. King.

The bees both protect farmers’ crops and make them honey that they can use and sell. Photo by Dr. Lucy E. King.