Kenyan farmers using honey bees to protect crops from elephants (Kenya)


Martin Cuddihy, ABC news

Date Published

See link for photos.

The belief that elephants are afraid of mice has been tested and seemingly proved by science television program Mythbusters.

But it turns out elephants are also afraid of honeybees, and this is a life-changing fact for Kenyan farmers.

The elephants of Tsavo are world-renowned and more than 15,000 of them live in the national parks of eastern Kenya.

But elephants are wildlife and they do not really respect the boundaries of the park. How can they when most of it is not even fenced?

So farmers who live around the peripheries of the Tsavo conservancies have long battled with the world’s largest land mammal.

There have been instances where elephants have been killed by farmers and communities because crops have been destroyed.

Ester Serem, a project officer with Save the Elephants, said the community was “scared of the elephants”.

“We have had some instances where some people have been killed here,” she said.

“When people see the elephants approaching, they just freak out.”

Farmer Hezron Nzumu has spent many sleepless nights chasing elephants out of his paddocks.

“After we plant our crops we have to keep on changing. If I’m asleep, my wife would be awake. We have to keep on exchanging at night.”

He would do whatever it takes to keep the elephants away.

“We have to beat the Mbati (a tin roof) whistling — using a whistle or making noise. Lighting fires and using torches.”

‘Phenomenal’ beehive experiment

The discovery that elephants are afraid of bees has changed the way farmers are protecting their livelihoods.

Masters student Sophia Weinmann is studying Resource Conservation at the University of Montana. She has been helping to set up beehive fences and then records the result.

“Elephants can recognise the sound of them in their beehives,” she said.

“If an animal comes up to the fence, sometimes they just hear the bees or they recognise the shape because they have been here before.

“They walk within a few metres of the hives and then they turn and walk away.”

African honey bees are far more aggressive than their European cousins. In fact, certain sections of the tabloid media in the US simply refer to them as killer bees.

If their hives are disturbed, the insects will swarm. They have been known to kill people, and they have been known to kill elephants as well.

“If they don’t recognise the hives straight away, if they come and they hit the wire, it’ll shake the hive and the bees will come out and they’ll sting the elephants around the eyes, ears, and the trunk and then the elephants will run away,” Ms Weinmann said.

In fact, the bees are so aggressive that it is not safe to transfer a colony of bees into an empty hive. Extracting honey during the day is considered folly.

The trial has the approval of the of Kenya’s Wildlife Service, the Government arm that controls the national parks.

“I think it’s a phenomenal experiment,” wildlife service director general Kitili Mbathi said.

“I’ve tasted the honey and it’s delicious. If we can do more things like that we’ll be winning.”

The benefits to the farmers appears threefold. Primarily, it stops the elephants and that is what the whole program is designed to do.

There has been an 80 per cent reduction of elephant invasions on farms using the bee fences. But the farmer also gets to sell the honey — and anecdotally, their yields are up.

Bees are not only protecting the crops, they are pollinating them as well.