Could bees help keep elephants away from crops in Africa?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It is said that elephants are afraid of mice, but scientists have discovered what elephants are really afraid of: bees.

It turns out that the enormous mammals sound an alarm when they encounter bees, and that knowledge could help save African farmers' crops from elephants -- and could save elephants, too.

Elephants and humans don't always live well together, particularly in African countries including Kenya. A single hungry elephant can wipe out a family's crops overnight. During the harvest season, farmers will huddle by fires all night, and when an elephant comes near, they will jump up with flaming sticks while their children bang on pots and pans.

But not all fields can be guarded, and the elephants aren't always frightened off. Sometimes, farmers kill elephants to protect their crops. Rampaging elephants have also killed people.

But bees could help end all that, said Lucy King, who studies animal behavior and published a study on the subject. King did two experiments. In the first, she played recorded bee sounds near elephants, and the elephants took off. But the researchers also noticed that even elephants in the distance, away from the recorded bee sound, also moved away. That suggested elephants could communicate an alarm that humans could not hear.

For her second experiment, King hung ultra-sensitive microphones from trees to record the elephant rumblings. She then played the sounds back to elephants, and those elephants also moved away when they heard the recordings.

More research needs to be done before these findings can be put to wide use, but King hopes it will offer a solution to the 1,300 complaints the Kenya Wildlife Service records about elephant-human contact each year.

Farmers could make "bee fences" by stringing up hives on poles about 10 yards apart, King said. A strong wire connecting the poles would cause them to swing when an elephant walks into it, disturbing the bees. The swarm would bother the big animal so much that it would flee. The low rumbling sound the elephant makes in response would warn other elephants nearby.

"It's impossible to cover Africa in electric fences," King said. "This could be a better way to direct elephants away from farmers' crops."

So the next time a bee gets between you and the picnic table, don't feel bad. Now you know that even much bigger creatures share your fear of the insects.

-- From staff and wire reports

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