African Farmers Are Building Sustainable Beehive Fences to Protect Their Crops From Wild Elephants


Rafi Schwartz, GOOD magazine

Date Published

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You might think that because of their immense size and thick leathery hide, elephants wouldn’t mind bees the way human beings do. But, as it turns out, the tender insides of an elephant’s trunk and soft tissue around their eyes render pachyderms just as perturbed by the prospect of painful bee stings as the rest of us—so much so that many elephants steer clear of an area if they even hear the sound of bees buzzing.

Armed with this knowledge, a team of entrepreneurial zoologists have devised a way to help farmers in rural Africa protect their property from the persistent threat of wild elephants trampling their crops; It’s called the Beehive Fence, and it’s a remarkably simple solution to this elephantine problem.

Each fence consists of beehives suspended at 10-meter intervals along a laterally running metal wire, which can be set up to enclose farmland or other areas at risk of trampling. As an elephant approaches the fence, they will jostle the metal wire, which in turn will get the bees a-buzzing, causing the oncoming elephant to make an about-face, rather than risk getting stung.

The fence is the brainchild of Lucy King of the Elephants and Bees Project, itself a part of the Save the Elephants charity. According to the project’s website, not only do the fences help protect crops from being trampled, but they ultimately help protect the elephants themselves. That’s because farmers often resort to shooting firecrackers or guns in the air to frighten the animals off their farmland. This causes the elephants to become aggravated and charge, putting the farmers’—and the elephants’—lives at risk.

After a test run in 2009, Beehive Fences—now back by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund—have been installed across much of southeastern Africa, with discussions already taking place to expand into India. According to the EBP, the system boasts an 80 percent success rate, and is relatively inexpensive, costing between $100 and $500 for every 100 meters of fence, depending on (entirely locally sourced) materials. A complete how-to guide to building a Beehive Fence, authored by King, can be found here.

Beyond simply saving elephants and crops, Beehive Fences have a surprisingly positive secondary effect: Because the system relies on healthy, well-maintained bee populations in order to work effectively, communities in which the fences are installed have begun harvesting honey from their helpful hives, and are selling it to help support the project.