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Farmers, Elephants, and Bees: A Winning Combination

elephantAs if African elephants didn’t have enough to worry about, habitat loss is yet another key issue affecting their survival. Although elephant populations have increased since the 1970s, the human population has grown even more quickly, cutting the elephants’ habitat up into farms and roads. The elephants’ key migratory routes have been cut off in many places. As result, they regularly break through fences, where they eat and destroy crops. When the farmers confront elephants on their property, things don’t generally end well for either party.

Lucy King, a researcher working with Save the Elephants, has spent many years investigating the problems involved in crop protection. Her goal is to find long-term solutions that reduce the frequency of human-elephant conflicts—and that can be financed and managed by local farmers.

As Ms. King looked into the elephants’ habits for any clues to keeping them out of fields planted with crops, she noticed that they tended to avoid acacia trees with active nests of African bees. Elephants, it so happens, are afraid of the bees, and will move away from an area and warn other elephants if they hear bees buzzing nearby.

And so the beehive fence was invented. The fences are simple, inexpensive, and easy for the farmers to build and maintain. The thatched roof over the hives keeps the bees dry in the rain and keeps them from getting overheated in the sun (they get aggressive and eventually leave the hives if they get too hot). The hives are hung at chest height which makes it easy for the farmer to harvest the honey, while also making them highly visible to the elephants. Download the Beehive Fence Construction Manual.

Beehive Fence Schematic

Beehive Fence Schematic


The hives, connected by wires,  are hung every 10 meters around the perimeter of a field. The farmers leave wide pathways between their crops so elephants can move past the fences along their migratory routes. If an elephant makes contact with one of the hives or the connecting wires, the beehives all along the fence will swing and release the bees.

Lucy King

Lucy King and a beehive fence installation

This approach has proven to be extremely effective, reducing crop destruction and human-elephant conflicts by up to 85%. And, according to Lucy King, there’s an added bonus:

Elephant Friendly Honey

Elephant-friendly honey from beehive fences provides additional income for the farmers.

“Not only do low-income farmers benefit from higher yields through reduced damaging crop-raids, but they also benefit from honey production and sales. This diversifies both their income and their food production options as honey is financially valuable, nutritious and does not require refrigeration.”

This is the kind of solution we need more of: easy to implement and manage by local communities, with immediate and long-term benefits. And we’re not the only ones who think so: in February, Lucy King won a 2013 Future for Nature award, and it was just announced on May 3, 2013, that Ms. King and the Elephants and Bees project has been awarded the St. Andrews Prize for the Environment.

Graduate students/volunteers interested in helping the project should email lucy@savetheelephants.org with a CV and cover letter. Students must be physically fit, have good proven fieldwork experience and be comfortable working and living in the bush in basic conditions. Priority will be given to students already living in Kenya and able to come for interview but everyone is considered.

Comments: 18

  1. But.. what about the elephants

    • They are able to move past the crops without incident to other undeveloped areas, where they can graze and do all the things elephants do in the wild. (And hopefully avoid poachers.)

    • I think it will take them several bad experiences with the bees to realize and avoid them later.

      • I think the elephants teach each other about bees — when the researchers were testing elephants’ reactions to the sound of buzzing bees, the first elephant to hear the bees warned the others with a low rumbling sound, and they all got the heck out of there.

  2. Mmmm..Needs deep consideration in our context. Some people would be interested in stealing the hives and the honey at night. Some species of wild animals in our area love honey. So we would have to employ people to guard the hives as we already do to keep the elephants away albeit with only a 25% success rate. But still, facing people in the dead of night is is not as daunting as facing elephants. Great work there Lucy. Perhaps we could get in touch and brainstorm over our situation?

    Peter Legis, Loitokitok, Kenya. On the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro.

  3. I’m surprised that bees are any sort of threat to elephants, given their thick skins. Why are elephants frightened of them?

    • African bees are especially fierce, and elephants have some parts that aren’t covered with thick hide, so they can be stung, and badly.

  4. Honey DoILookFat

    clever and simple solution and I couldn’t agree more. We need more solutions of this kind. For more discussion please see this: http://afritech.com/item?id=3493

  5. This is an idea that excites me for its insight, creativity, cost effectiveness and total respect for all living beings and the environment. I hope this idea and its create spirit will spread far and wide.

  6. Wow, that’s like stringing your fence with grenades o-o

  7. Doesn’t do much to save elephant habitat, while it saves them and the farmers crops.

  8. Can we work the same with indian elephants using Apis cerana indica bees (indian)??

  9. The Elephants and Bees Research Project is one of Save the Elephants’ innovative programs designed to explore the natural world for solutions to human-elephant conflict.

  10. Hi this is vinod kumar,from, hosur, Tamilnadu state, India.

    In our village we r facing wild elephants problem everyday destroying crops and people used to attack by elephants need solution to avoid this

  11. Great work Lucy. One question we have is where do one get enough bee colonies to cover the 24ha crops in the 2 communities where elephants are a problem? It would need a minimum of about 200 hives. Also the shortage of flowers in the area might not support 200 hives.
    Has anybody done similar research on Hippos? They tend to do more damage in our area in Mozambique.

    • It’s a good question, Pieter. I’ll forward it to Lucy to see if she can respond. Thanks.

    • A response this morning from Lucy King, from Nairobi:

      “The beehive fences have been designed to help keep elephants away from the poorest of the poor African farmers who are living off 2-3 acres of farmland right on the fringes of wild areas so its perfect for bees due to the natural vegetation often provided by the parks themselves and also that they have small plots that can be easily protected. We regard 24 hectares as a massive farm and therefore not appropriate for beehive fences. For a large farm like that, you would be better off to look at perhaps a simple solar electric fence combined with ditches on the outer side of the fence with perhaps only the worse effected corner backed up by a beehive fence. 200 hives around one farm is going to be a struggle for occupation levels. We haven’t tried beehive fences against hippos, its designed for keeping elephants out as the hives are at the right height for elephants. For hippos you just need to dig some ditches on the outside of your farm with the soil piled up on the inside of your farm making a ditch followed by a steep wall – they will really struggle to climb up that. They also don’t do well getting over walls of any kind, so piling up stones or even building a small 1 meter high wall around your farm would be an easier long term solution.

      Good luck and keep an eye on our website http://www.elephantsandbees.com for more updates…”

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