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Africa’s Honey Fences – Using Beehives to Keep Elephants at Bay

Thanks to zoologist Dr Lucy King, farmers in rural Africa no longer need to worry about elephants wrecking their fields. Through ‘The Elephants and Bees Project’, she introduced the concept of honey fences – a low cost, organic solution that employs beehives suspended several meters apart to keep pachyderms away. The fences are essentially gifts that keep on giving, because the farmers are also able to make an additional income from the honey.

King first hit upon the idea after she read that elephants actually avoid acacia trees – their favorite food – if they spot a beehive in the branches. She then spent several years conducting behavioral experiments, like filming elephants reacting to the sound of bees buzzing played through a loudspeaker. Using the data she gathered, she began to develop the honey fence system – she suspended a series of hives at ten-meter intervals from a single wire, threaded around wooden fence posts. To get into the field an elephant would have to touch either the wire or the hive, disturbing the bees and causing them to swarm out in buzzing cloud.

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Photo: The Elephants and Bees Project

As reported by Africa Geographic, elephants “follow their extraordinary sense of smell to track down juicy vegetables or harvested bags of maize from farmers’ fields. Given the average elephant’s appetite – they can consume up to 400kg of food a day – this can be devastating to rural subsistence farmers.”

Farmers used to respond to these elephant attacks with rudimentary methods – shouting, lighting fires, throwing stones and chili bombs, banging drums, or releasing dogs. In worst case scenarios, they would have to resort to hurling spears or bows and arrows, resulting in both the villagers and endangered animals getting hurt in the process.

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Photo: The Elephants and Bees Project

Electric fencing is the obvious solution in such situations, but it doesn’t really work for the farmers because of the high costs involved. “Fences also cut wildlife corridors, result in over-grazing and permanent damage to ecosystems,” according to Africa Geographic. “Confining elephant herds can cause localised population explosions with potentially devastating consequences  for the elephants, other wildlife and the ecosystem.”

Honey fences, on the other hand, are organic – they take advantage of the fact that elephants are scared of the sound of bees. This is apparently because the delicate skin of elephant calves and the inside of adults’ trunks are vulnerable to bee stings.

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Photo: The Elephants and Bees Project

“Hives are hung every 30 feet and linked together,” says King. “If an elephant touches one of the hives or the interconnecting wires, the beehives all along the fence swing and release the stinging insects.”

The first honey fence trial in 2009 was successful – it managed to deter all except one bull elephant. Since then, King, in collaboration with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and British Airways, has been spreading The Elephant and Bees Project to sites all over Africa. And thousands of farmers have attested that the fences are working wonderfully for them.

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Photo: The Elephants and Bees Project

“The farmers very much feel the fences are working,”said Neville Sheldrick of the Wildlife Trust. “When I visit they proudly walk me around showing me the footprints of elephants that have walked up to and along the fence in several locations before turning back towards the park. They certainly seem very happy with it, and we have been approached by neighbours who are eager to also be included in the project.” And according to Angela Carr-Hartley, the director of the trust, “farmers are able to garner some revenue from the harvesting of honey.”

“This is exactly the sort of project we love to support,” added Mary Barry, British Airways’ head of community investment. “Long-term partnerships, such as the one with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, allow us to positively respond to opportunities, in this case affecting a simple, clever solution that makes a meaningful difference.”

 

For her work on the research project, Dr. King was awarded the UNEP/CMS Thesis Award in 2011. “I congratulate Dr. King as the winner of this important award,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in his congratulatory message. “Her research underlines how working with, rather than against, nature can provide humanity with many of the solutions to challenges countries and communities face.”

Sources: Africa Geographic, Edible Geography, SciDev