The buzz about elephants: Using bees to protect crops

Bees maintain harmony between elephants and farmers.

Crop-raiding by migrating African elephants is a pressing issue for many farmers who border protected land. Bees provide an simple, ecologically friendly way to maintain harmony between elephant migrations and the farmers' livelihoods. (Hailey Smalley/SUNY-ESF)

Jazson Julius gazed across the hilly landscape of the Tanzanian highlands, clutching a well-weathered walking stick in one hand as he gestured to a farm on the next hill over. Visible from across a misty valley was a field of pigeon peas with two thick, muddy paths slashed through the yellow stalks. “Tembo,” Julius explained simply — “elephant.” Then, he pointed to a stretch of forest bordering the ridge above the farms and said, “Ngorongoro Conservation Area.” It was not difficult to fill in the blanks. As we walked through the neighboring farms, trampled stalks, eaten branches, and more massive footprints revealed those farms that, like the first, were visited by destructive elephants in the night.

Kilimatembo — which translates to “hill of elephants” — is far from the only village struggling with issues of human-elephant conflict. Crop-raiding by elephants has become a pressing issue in areas bordering protected land, leading to reduced crop yields, a negative perception of elephants in local communities, and, in some cases, injuries and deaths of both humans and elephants as farmers are forced to confront these giants head-on.

Bees may be the shockingly small and simple solution to this problem. While tiny in stature, these insects pack quite a punch, especially where elephants are concerned. Elephants tend to avoid areas where bees are prevalent, seemingly because the sensitive skin around their eyes, ears, and trunk gives them a nasty predisposition towards painful stings. Jumping off from this idea, Lucy King of Save the Elephants, an NGO devoted to minimizing human-elephant conflicts, developed a beehive fence for use in African farmsteads, which is quickly being adopted throughout Africa and Asia.

Jazson Julius surveys damage caused by elephants
Jazson Julius surveys the damage caused by elephants on a neighboring farm. (Hailey Smalley/SUNY-ESF)

The need for bees

With more land coming under cultivation, solutions to wildlife conflicts, such as those posed by elephant crop raiding, are more needed than ever. One study conducted by Catrina Mackenzie and Peter Ahabyona in a village in Uganda near Kibale National Park found that farmers lost an average of 1.5% of their household capital asset wealth over the course of six months from elephant crop raiding. This can be especially troubling for small-scale subsistence agriculturists like Julius, who rely directly upon their crops for food throughout the year.

Some areas in Kenya, such as Kimana Sanctuary, have employed electric fences to keep elephants and other potentially destructive wildlife within protected areas and away from human settlements. However, this method of fencing wildlife in, can be destructive to migratory wildlife, and is thus unsustainable in many areas. On the other hand, bordering farmland with electric fencing is not cost effective for the typical small-scale agriculturist, especially as much of the rural population in East Africa and Southeast Asia, where wild elephants still roam, lack access to electricity.

Beehive fences provide a sustainable solution for many agriculturists. Bee boxes can be constructed from a variety of local materials such as wood and old tires, and thus tend to be a more a cost-effective approach to wildlife conflict mitigation. Save the Elephants estimates typical start-up costs as low as $150 per 100 meters of fencing. In addition, once bees move into the bee boxes, farmers may accrue additional food or income from the collection of honey and honeycomb as well as increased crop yields associated with the presence of more pollinators.

How it works

To construct a beehive fence, empty bee boxes are strung on a wire surrounding the field of interest. Within a few months, wild bees typically move into these boxes to create a living, breathing fence. If an elephant attempts to enter the field, they will likely jiggle the line connecting the boxes, which, in turn, shakes the beehives along the outskirts of the field. It is likely that the would-be crop thief will rush back into the safety of the forest even before the jostled bees swarm, forced into flight by the fearful noise of their most tiny, ferocious enemies.

Bee boxes
Bee boxes made from old tires hang in a grove of fruit trees. (Hailey Smalley/SUNY-ESF)

Elephants
Using bee boxes as a technique to prevent crop raiding keeps elephants from disrupting farms during migration. (Hailey Smalley/SUNY-ESF)

Looking forward

Preliminary trials in Kenya have proven that bee box fences are more effective than traditional thorn bush barriers or western-style fencing at keeping elephants at bay, with a success rate of over 80%. While more trials are needed, these results prove promising for the future of farming within East Africa and Southeast Asia, especially as beehive fences are relatively cheap and easy to implement.

Beehive fences have already been employed in thirteen different countries throughout Africa and Asia, including Tanzania, and the practice is continuing to spread.

In Kilimatembo, Julius still speaks of the devastation that an overnight visit by an elephant can cause to his or his neighbor’s fields. However, beehive fences have become more common in the area, appearing in neighboring villages as the practice becomes better known. With any luck, bees will soon become regular inhabitants of Kilimatembo as well, increasing the food security of rural families like Julius’s.

It just goes to show: sometimes to solve big problems, you have to think small.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.