Beehive fences can stop elephants from farms, study confirms

A beehive fence in Tsavo.
A beehive fence in Tsavo.

Farmers around Taita Taveta area have for decades planted hedges using cactuses, hot chilli-pepper crops, dug of moats around farmlands, and used beehives to deter elephants from their farms.

Now, a new study from Oxford University confirms beehives are the better alternative because they stop 80 per cent of crop raids which reduces human-elephant conflicts.

Electric fences are not feasible in many areas, especially around Tsavo parks due to lack of electricity, and the other types of fences are also ineffective against such large, hungry creatures.

Although elephant skin is 2.5 centimetres thick, they can still be stung in areas around their eyes and inside their trunks, which can be extremely painful.

The researchers now recommend the beehives as an affordable and non-violent "fences", which are already being used by farmers in Kenya and other parts of Africa.

The study was done as part of the , a collaboration between Save the Elephants, Oxford University, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom,

According to the study, while the growing numbers of African elephants is a success story for conservationists, containing such large and intelligent animals within national parks is a serious problem for local communities.

"Arable farms offer a tempting source of food to a roaming elephant, which can wipe out an entire farm's crop. Elephants have learnt to overcome common deterrents such as hedgerows and trenches, and many poorer farmers cannot afford the more effective electric fences. As a result, conflict between humans and elephants is increasing. Farmers are resorting to poisoning or shooting these protected animals, while a significant number of people are also injured or killed during elephant crop-raids,” the study states.

Free-roaming elephants are tempted by farm crops and are undeterred by traditional deterrents such as thorn bushes and ditches. Subsistence farmers are unable to afford electric fencing and have occasionally shot or poisoned elephants to stop crop raids.

Research carried out in Kenya by Prof Fritz Vollrath and Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton with support from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council confirmed local evidence that elephants avoid feeding on acacia trees that hold beehives.

Dr Lucy King further carried out studies in 2010 to identify the factors associated with beehives that deter elephants.

She states that the trials found that the sound of swarming bees resulted in over 90 per cent of elephants moving away from the source of the sound, and that elephants have a call warning others in the herd to keep away.

Another possible method which has not been tried yet would not even require bees. The researchers discovered that the mere sound of disturbed bees was enough to cause elephants to retreat. To test this, the researchers used loudspeakers to play audio recordings of disturbed bees, which also caused the elephants to retreat.

Field trials helped develop a model for building effective beehive fences using inexpensive easily available materials.

The fence trials were carried out on two farms in Kenya - one containing beehives, and the other without.

In a six-week period, the one with beehives had fewer crop raids and higher productivity than in a similar previous period, whilst the unprotected farm lost 90 per cent of its crops due to elephant damage.

Subsequently, a larger study involving 34 farms and 45 attempted crop raids recorded only one elephant incursion in two years.

Beehive fences have proven popular and are now being used in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Botswana and Mozambique.

The fences have greatly reduced crop-raiding and human-elephant conflict, improving both safety and food security for many communities. New evidence has suggested that the bees may also help to improve crop yield through increased pollination.

The beehive fences have also provided further benefits for the farmers through sales of honey and other bee products such as beeswax candles.

The report says: “A simple yet innovative solution, beehive fences have helped boost the resilience of local farming businesses, while also allowing the peaceful co-existence of humans and African elephants.”