Beehives vs Drunken Elephants

Elephant with an attitude (Image CC-SA by Vikram Gupchup)

Drunken elephants have been a problem for as long as I can remember. Elephants are known to booze-up, get rowdy, and attack farmers – sometimes even entire villages. A herd of elephants got drunk on rice beer in Assam, India, and then looted and destroyed a nearby community. Reportedly, they were mostly young elephants and were just looking for more beer. But unfortunately, four people were killed in the ensuing skirmish. Worldwide, over 100 people are killed each year by irritated elephants. The worrisome fact is that not all the elephants are drunken beasts during their murderous escapades – many of the killers are stone-cold sober.

Some environmentalists are (at least partially) excusing the elephants’ riotous behaviour, suggesting it is in retaliation for human activity which continually encroaches upon elephant land. I think the environmentalists have a point. But no species has the right to take the law into their own hands – and revenge is a slippery, retaliatory slope which can only lead to an escalation of the Hatfield and McCoy sort. However, if the elephants are fed up with us, they certainly have their reasons.

Goons have been poaching and slaughtering elephants for generations, turning elephant legs into drums and flower pots and tusks into trinkets. Elephants are migratory mammals, traveling long distances as they follow seasonal changes for healthy dietary variations and for meet ups at watering holes and salty mineral springs. There they may share stories or even fall in love. But we have taken most of their rangeland for our own growing population, turning their trails into our roads and their meadows into our fields. The forest elephant in the Republic of Central Africa lost 60% of its population to poaching – the ivory is sold to fund human wars and, in other parts of Africa, terrorism. Elsewhere, humans in Laos, Sri Lanka, India, and 37 African nations have expanded cropland to prevent their own starvation. In the process, elephant numbers have plunged in the past few decades – the African elephant population, for example, has fallen from 4 million (1930) to 300,000 today.

Some well-behaved elephants:

Farmhand (1855)

Executioner (1868)

Circus performer(1880)

General Labourer, 1946

Temple duty (2010)

For centuries, humans have used elephants for work, warfare, and entertainment.  As you can see in the pictures below, elephants have been employed in temples as living totems of Ganesha and executioners in India (the second image below is fuzzy, but it is an 1868 sketch of an elephant being forced to kill the man whose head is on the block). Elephants have given us circus entertainment in North America (as in Dumbo and Jumbo among thousands of others) and they have worked as draft animals throughout southeast Asia and general labourers in Europe (the last photograph below was shot by a US service man in Hamburg in 1945 – the elephant is cleaning up WWII debris after Allied bombing).

We have been abusive. But human women, children, and farm peasants pay the price when marauding elephants trample conventional fences and destroy crops. Elephants have learned to lift latches on gates and they have sought weak spots in wire and wooden fences when gates are locked. Subsistence farmers are sometimes ruined when elephants trash fields. But the pachyderms recognize beehives and steer clear of potential stings. So, a very bright Oxford scientist, Dr Lucy King, came up with a potential solution. It is based on the fact that elephants are afraid of bees.

For inventing a fence of beehives that reduces clashes between humans and elephants, the United Nations presented Dr King with the prestigious Conservation of Migratory Species award. She received the recognition because her fence is innovative, uses local resources, provides farmers with honey and wax, and because it actually works. First tested in 2008, it has stopped 84 out of 90 attempted raids in three different regions. It seems to fit culturally – three different African tribes have adopted the system. Beekeepers reading this will also recognize that the hive is elevated on posts and suspended by wires. This prevents nasty brood-eating mammals (as well as ants) from accessing the bee colonies. African bees typically nest in trees so these hanging hives are accepted by the bees – I suspect unoccupied boxes would attract swarms. (Since the elephants have learned to recognize the units as hives, dummy hives can be hung among populated hives – these are equally effective at barring the elephants.) Beekeepers will also recognize the construction shown here is a TBH (Top Bar Hive), which uses local materials, but Langstroth hives (as nucs) can also be used.

I think this is a brilliant idea. It satisfies the defensive needs of the local people without killing the endangered migratory elephants (they simply skirt the bees and the crops and continue ambling along their way). Dr King has placed a manual (which she wrote) on the internet so other groups may adopt her idea. Meanwhile, testing, refinement, and distribution of the beehive fence continues. You can – and should – visit to learn more. You may also contribute to this effort by going to the Elephants and Bees donor page or through the UK’s Save the Elephants charity. We are told that “100% of funds will go towards project-running expenses.”

Kenyan beehive fence, with Dr King
(photo from Beehive Fence Construction Manal


About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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