How elephants’ fear of bees could benefit them and humans where their habitats overlap (South Africa)

Mar 12, 2019 | News

Amanda Coetzee, The African Reporter

Researchers in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park proved that African elephants are afraid of honeybees.

They hope to use this trait locally as a strategy to keep elephants away from human-populated areas, reported Live Science. The researchers published their study in the journal Current Biology.

Honeybees release pheromones when they sense a threat. These pheromones act as a natural alarm signal calling members of the hive to assist in the defense of the hive by stinging. Scientists realized that if elephants could sense the alarm pheromones from honeybees, they’d likely keep their distance from that area.

To test this theory, the researchers placed a sock filled with a slow-release matrix containing a blend of honeybee alarm pheromones near a watering hole frequented by the park’s elephants. They watched 25 of 29 elephants approach the sock and briefly inspect it from a distance before backing away in fear.

Researchers think elephants are afraid of bees because they dislike being stung in the soft tissue inside their trunks and around their eyes. They surmise that as the elephants evolved, they learned to identify the alarm pheromones and to steer clear of honeybees to avoid their painful stings.

Strategies to Prevent Conflict and Loss of Elephants

Human populations are growing in regions of Africa and Asia that overlap with elephant habitat, making it important to develop safe elephant-management strategies that will help prevent conflict and the loss of elephants.

The threat of bees is so intensely felt by elephants that conservationists in Kenya are using it to help prevent the kinds of conflict that put these animals at risk.

The New York Times reported that researchers persuaded farmers in Africa to use elephants’ fear of bees as a fence line to protect crops. By stringing beehives every 20 meters – alternating with fake hives – a team of researchers have shown that they can keep 80 percent of elephants away from farmland.

Save the Elephants, a nonprofit conservationist group, builds wire and beehive fences at a cost of about $1,000 for a one-acre farm, said Dr. Lucy King, who heads the human-elephant coexistence programme for the charity. The farm gets protection against elephants and a modest new source of income from a twice-a-year honey harvest.

Another study led by Dr King, who is an Oxford University research associate, found that Asian elephants are also afraid of bees, though perhaps less so. It’s the first step toward showing that the control strategy can also work in countries like Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Thailand, where Asian elephants are 10 times more endangered than their African cousins.

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