A British researcher has won a coveted environment research prize following her work on how bees can be used to reduce human-elephant conflict in Kenya.
Despite being one of the African continent’s most iconic species, the African elephant regularly comes into conflict with local people. In their search for food, the large mammals frequently cause widespread damage to agriculture and water supplies, with this conflict sometimes resulting in the injury or death of both people and elephants.
As part of her PhD thesis, Dr Lucy King, an African-born researcher, has discovered a solution to this ongoing problem by proving that special beehive ‘fences’ can help to keep elephants out of farmers’ fields or compounds.
Her work, which has just been awarded the UNEP/CMS Thesis Award on Migratory Species Conservation, is founded on the basis that elephants are scared of bees. Bees can potentially fly into the animals’ trunks and sting them inside, and Dr King has shown that elephants will flee when they hear buzzing.
Executive director of UNEP Achim Steiner praised Dr King’s approach to conflict resolution, “Her research underlines how working with, rather than against, nature can provide humanity with many of the solutions to the challenges countries and communities face.”
Creating a buzz
During their research in Kenya, Dr King and her team found that more than 90% of elephants will flee when they hear bees buzzing. Their work has also led to the discovery that elephants produce a special rumbling noise to warn other individuals in the herd of the danger.
The research team used these findings to create fences which had beehives woven into them, to keep elephants away from human-inhabited areas and agricultural land. A total of 34 farms were involved in a 2-year pilot project, the results of which demonstrated that elephants trying to get through fences would shake them, causing disturbance to the beehives.
Dr King’s work both highlights the importance of bees to humans, and provides a unique and innovative way of conserving the world’s largest land animal for future generations.
A living solution
Africa’s growing population is under ever-increasing pressure for space, and has to compete with wildlife to obtain it, often resulting in potentially fatal conflict. However, following the pilot study, farming communities within three Kenyan districts have adopted the use of beehive fences.
Farm owners not only have a new means by which to protect their homes and crops from destruction by elephants, but are also able to increase their incomes by selling honey from the hives.
“Dr Lucy King has designed a constructive solution that considers the needs of migratory animals but also the economic benefits to the local communities linked to species conservation,” said CMS executive secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema.
Taking the solution further afield
Dr King hopes that her beehive fence idea will also be adopted in other parts of Africa, and is working with the charity Save the Elephants in order to achieve this.
“I can’t say for certain it’s going to work elsewhere,” she says. “There is potential to take it down to southern Africa which has the largest elephant population and an increasing human-elephant conflict problem.”
The use of this new method of human-wildlife conflict avoidance is not limited to the African continent, and could also prove useful in parts of Asia. In Sri Lanka alone, the death toll as a result of human-elephant conflict is estimated at 60 people and 200 Asian elephants per year.
However, Dr King points out that there would be different considerations when applying this method in Asia.
“With Asia, there are some issues we’d have to look at – it’s a totally different elephant species, the bee species are different, it rains a lot more, we have animals like bears that love honey,” she says. “But I’d be very interested in sharing my research with anyone with experience in Asia to see whether it could work there.”
Read more on this story at BBC News – Elephant and bee researcher nets green prize.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author