The Surprising & Sweet Way We Can Help Save Elephants Before It's Too Late

Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images.
Even the faintest buzz of a bee whirring by is enough to make you tense up, your eyes scanning the sky for a sign of the tiny insect whose prick can make even the most stoic among us weep in pain.

Elephants, it turns out, share our reaction to bees. And that inherent fear of being stung is being used to help save the species.

The elephant population has suffered a drastic decline in recent decades. Just over a century ago, as many as 5 million elephants roamed Africa, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Now, there are fewer than 50,000. While poaching remains one of the biggest threats to elephants, interactions with humans is a growing problem. Conflicts are particularly prevalent in areas where farming is a primary source of economic development.

"Elephants will graze through inhabited areas," Hayley Adams, PhD, a veterinarian who has spent 20-plus years working on conservation in Africa, said. "In one day, an elephant can wipe out a family’s entire crop."

Elephants, of course, can't be contained by traditional fences — they'll break right through. And the strategies deployed by some farmers, such as using guns or firecrackers to scare the creatures off, often just create more conflict. Startled elephants sometimes charge or become aggressive. Farmers respond with poison or spears.

Enter the bees. It appears that elephants, who are famously smart creatures, have learned their lesson from past encounters — like humans, they'll try to avoid the prick at all costs. Videos posted by Lucy King, PhD, who has been researching the interactions between elephants and bees for more than a decade, shows entire packs of elephants flee from the sound of an angry swarm.

“Once an elephant’s been stung, they tend to remember what it’s all about," Dr. Adams said.

Conservationists have taken note, started constructing "fences" made of beehives, turning the threat of a sting into a surprisingly simple — and sweet — solution for keeping the peace between elephants and farmers.

The hives hang from wires encircling the crops in need of protection. Hungry elephants looking for a midnight snack bump the wires, rattling the bees. The sound of the swarm sends the elephants looking for food elsewhere. In addition to saving the elephants and the crops, the strategy frees up rangers and farmers who otherwise would be stuck spending the night monitoring the fields.

Noah Sitati, PhD, Kilimanjaro landscape manager for the African Wildlife Foundation, conducted a study of his own as part of his PhD research in Kenya after seeing some local farmers construct hives on their land.

"These fences work very well," he told Refinery29. "I tried many simple strategies that are cost effective, and of course, using beehives was one of my strategies."
Photo: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images.
A beehive is erected on the outskirts of a field to prevent elephants destroying crops at the border of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

The Elephants and Bees Research Project, a Save the Elephants initiative backed by Dr. King and others, has seen success in places like Botswana, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and Tanzania. This year, Dr. Adams' own nonprofit, the Silent Heroes Foundation, is expanding the concept at farms surrounding Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with the help of a $6,000 grant from The Ian Somerhalder Foundation.

Adams' pilot project will start with just a few farms. But she hopes to scale it in the coming years — a goal she says is feasible given the low overhead costs and bar for training in a place where many farmers are familiar with the tradition of beekeeping.

Plus, there's one very sweet perk that offers an added incentive for farmers who are on the fence: "elephant-friendly honey" that they can harvest to consume or sell.

Adams, who looked up to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey as a young girl growing up in eastern Tennessee, hopes to inspire a new generation of conservationists by enlisting African and American students to help start and support the pilot. And she hopes that down the road, she can expand the project to empower Tanzania's female population — starting co-ops where women can sell the honey harvested from the fence's hives.

“It's often the women who are engaged in things like crafting and [the] selling of goods to provide for their families," she said. "Naturally, I understand the importance of supporting women on the front lines."

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