The story of the bees and the elephants is an ancient one. One that has remained in a veil of shadows to all but the ones involved – and to the few who witnessed and took note.
While entirely unknown to almost everyone else, it has been repeatedly told and retold by every living elephant. As astounding as it may sound, the largest animal walking the Earth is terrified of one of the smallest. That being said, anyone who has been on the receiving end of an angry bee will fully understand the elephants’ respect of them.
Elephants warn each other about the presence of bees. A most surprising, and potentially most impressive, observation still being investigated. A rumble specifically used to warn conspecifics of about nearby bees. This was discovered in playback-studies. First, relaxed elephants were sought out. Elephants resting peacefully during the warmest period of the day. In the shade of enormous trees, elephants waving their ears with a slow, constant rhythm, and with their tail every now and then flicking away an annoying fly. At the sound of disturbed, angry bees, the elephants became alert, sniffed the air for clues, listened intently, before retreating in a hurry with low rumbles. Second, the rumbled vocalised during the retreat was recorded. Other groups of snoozing elephants were then sought out. Again, the elephants were minding their own business, relaxing in the haze of the African midday, when the recording of the rumble was played to the unsuspecting subjects. The reaction was astounding head-shaking and retreating from the sound of the rumble. More studies are needed to determine if it is indeed a specific “bee-ware” rumble, but for now it seems likely.
The sheer size of elephants, their enormous presence, gives them the appearance of invincibility. But, like everyone, they have weak spots. Their belly skin is actually so thin that small ectoparasites are able to latch on – which means that bee stingers are also able to penetrate the skin here. Behind the ears, the inner membrane of the trunk, underneath the trunk and around the eyes are all sensitive areas. The elephants know this. At least the ones who have had encounters themselves or have learned from family members.
Now humans are beginning to catch on to this as well. In studies where elephants are exposed to bees, there are behavioural displays observed again and again. Most commonly seen behaviours in such situations are head-shaking – normally used to signal irritation, but may in these instances also have a more tangible function of bee-avoidance; then there is dust-bathing – another common behaviour mostly associated with wellness, but often observed in encounters with bees; and, last but not least, tail-raising and fleeing – signs of fear and avoidance usually observed in dangerous situations. Groups bunching together defensively and moving away at varying speeds with tails raised and glancing back towards the direction of the danger, which in these studies was the mere sound of buzzing bees.
The community of Gazini lies not far from a known elephant corridor. The corridor connects Tembe Elephant Park in South Africa with the Futi Corridor just across the border in Mozambique. In these remote reaches of KwaZulu-Natal elephants roam freely between the two countries. It is also an area, where human-elephant conflict is a recurring challenge for the people living there. In 2016, ERP became involved with the Sekelekani Cooperative here. The goal is, as always with ERP’s projects, to protected elephants through the alleviation of poverty. And, in this case, what better way of doing that than with a beehive fence.
This pilot project is a joint venture with Portia Morudi, a social entrepreneur in the bee business, founder and owner of The Village Market SA, and with a shared wish of wanting to make a difference for rural communities. With funding and Portia’s phenomenal expertise, a 460 m long beehive fence with 50 hives was installed. This initial fence has helped protect a 2-ha plot with vegetable for both the cooperative’s members and the local market, while at the same time having producing 200 kg of raw honey by the end of 2019. ERP bought the honey at a competitive price, bottled and labelled it, and sold it through ERP’s online shop eMercantile and through Portia’s network of retail stores.
The success of the project has led to an expansion with more people joining the cooperative and the initiation of a new crop to supplement their income during winter, when honey production is at its lowest. A crop that elephants will not attempt to sample more than once – chillies, another natural deterrent of elephants.