Only in recent times has the secret nature of the relationship between elephants and bees been discovered. It has been pulled into the exploring spotlight of science.

With the layers of myth pulled back what remains is the beautiful web of natural connectivity between two so distinct creatures that one would have never thought their paths would cross in any significant way. Understanding and innovation emerges for the benefit of both bees and elephants – as well as for people.

Once upon a time in Kenya…

...two scientists, Dr Fritz Vollrath and Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton from Save The Elephants, took note of the folktales about elephant and bees. They decided to put the stories to the test by creating a “minefield” of traditional log-beehives in an area known to be a favourite feeding spot for elephants. The results were promising, showing elephants avoided trees with beehives in them. While sharing their results in an article in 2001, they suggested that beehives could be used by small-scale farmers to keep elephants away, but also as a source of income. This was the initial spark of the beehive fence.

The idea was taken up again a few years later in 2006 and was the focus of Dr Lucy King’s DPhil thesis – the use of honey bees as a natural deterrent for crop-raiding elephants. Working with the two doctors, she started out carefully and small. A pilot study with two farms of which one was protected by a beehive fence and one was not. Again, there were promising results. The farm protected by beehives lost almost no crops, while the unprotected farm lost about 90 % of his crops to elephants.
In the next phase, the study was expanded. This time, they worked with two communities living near three unfenced reserves with elephants roaming freely. 149 beehives were used to build fences on the outer boundaries of 17 farms, a total of 1.7 kms long. Another 17 farms only protected by traditional thorn bush barriers were used as a control. The study ran for two years with three crop seasons that were monitored and data collected on beehive occupancy, number of crop-raids successful and prevented, amount of honey harvested and so on. Again, the beehive fence was a more effective barrier against maize-hungry elephants.

Throughout the years, since its inception, the beehive fence has been tried and tested leading to alterations and improvements. In essence, it is still the same simple fence with a single wire connecting beehives to each other. The beehives themselves have changed over the years though. The first experiment in Kenya used the traditional Masaai hives made from 1 meter long hollowed out pieces of Euphorbia spp. stems. Stringing these along on a fence required a thatched roof to protect them against the hard rain and unrelenting African sun. This may seem excessive, but if the bees are not comfortable in their hives, they will simply leave. And the fence will not work without the bees.

Then there was the matter of providing an additional income for the farmers. Harvesting honey from hollow tree trunks is cumbersome and honey production is low. Thus, hives were upgraded to Kenyan Top-Bar Hives (KTBH) constructed from plywood and corrugated iron. A queen excluder was added, limiting the queen’s access to the hive and allowing for cleaner honey to be harvested. Another design of hives widely used today is the Langstroth. It is more complex with multiple parts. Where the KTBH is horizontally laid out, the Langstroth consists of boxes stacked on top of each other with vertically hung frames in the top super box, making it easy to remove these during the honey harvest. It seems that this design is more conducive for honey production.

Internationally tried and tested

From its origin in Kenya, using beehives to deter elephants has been tried in other places with varying success. Because of differences in species (elephants and bees), environmental factors, habitats, accessibility etc. using bees to keep elephant at bay may not always be as effective everywhere. Equally, keeping an open mind and making adjustments may make this method suitable in different locations and increase the effectiveness of the fence.

The first reported test of the beehive fence outside of Kenya was in Zimbabwe in 2005. This was prior to the work done by Dr Lucy King, which may partly explain the limited success it had on crop-raiding elephants. The elephants did avoid the beehives, but they just created new entrance points instead. In Gabon, it proved effective against the famously shy forest elephants. An added bonus from this study was the proof that hives with a high bee activity were the most effective deterrents. In Tanzania, they found beehive fences effective, but also that the planning of the fence with regards to shape, length and location is very important. Every time the beehive fence is tried, something new is discovered which can benefit others who are only just starting out with their fences.

Recently, it has been tested on Asian elephants. Conflicts between humans and elephants is as rife in Asia as it is throughout Africa. It is still early days with only two published reports, and the conclusions are mixed. One study showed the elephants to be indifferent to the beehives, attributing this to the bee species used to be less aggressive than the African honey bee. Another pilot study showed promising results with a significant reduction in crop-raiding by elephants. It seems the jury is still out in Asia…

South Africa is different from the rest in at least one aspect. There are virtually no free-roaming elephants in the country. There are a few, but not to the degree as in the rest of the countries where beehives have been tested. Because the elephants’ movements are restricted to fenced-in reserves, the vegetation is taking a beating with no time to recuperate, as it would have been able to under more normal circumstances with natural elephant migratory movements. Like us, elephants have favourite food items, and like us, they will usually go for those first. But that means that some trees are suffering more than others, like the marula tree, the cabbage tree or the baobab. In South Africa, many of the experiments with beehives have focused on protecting individual trees, and not tried to exclude elephants from a particular area. The design used is more or less the same as the original design from the study in 2001 with beehives hanging from tree branches. So far, the results looks promising.

The bee’s knees of it all – honey

Two aspects of the beehive fence as a concept are particularly attractive. The obvious one of keeping elephants away from whatever the fence is protecting, most often crops. The other is the additional income. It is by no means a ‘lean back and let it be’ kind of business. Beekeeping requires work. But instead of having to repair the old fence again and again, risking life and limbs by sleeping in the field exposed to predators and the elements and chasing away giants, beehives and a single wire will in most instances do the job. And at the same time, it can be an additional source of income.

Empowerment is the underlying outcome of the beehive fence. Hopeless desperation and anger at watching a herd of elephants eating its way through the crops meant for the market and the family, and not being able to do much to stop it, while always having to worry if they will come back the next night to finish it off. Or next week. From despair to hope with a beehive fence to even out the playing field. Restoring some form of control to the people living with elephants. Taking ownership of it. If the farmers take good care of the bees and the beehive fence, the bees will take good care of them by pollinating their crops and protecting it from wandering elephants.

Cost-effectiveness has been a key focus point since the inception of the beehive fence. It needed to be cheap, simple and something that would work in the field without complicated and expensive spare parts. Over the years, in the course of different experiments and studies, the economics of the fence has also been investigated and reported. The basic design of the fence has remained the same with hanging hives connected by a single wire, but the hives themselves have changed to become more efficient. Although this effectiveness comes at a higher price, it will pay off in the end.

By using the economic data available two researchers modelled the income potential of honey production. They show that the costs are quite high with $1,715 for 40 hives to start-out and an estimated annual running cost of $50, including equipment, labour and transport. However, these expenses are all recovered within 2 years. Moreover, they showed there would be a return of $1.8 for every $1 invested, after the beehive fence has been operational for 5 years. This might not sound like a lot, but it is a significant return. What is not part of these projections are the added benefits of reduced costs of fencing material, higher income from crops not lost to elephants, increased pollination of crops and reduced risk of lives lost in the protection of crops and property.

ERP’s beehive fence project in Gazini is still in its infancy. But in the first harvest year, the fence produced 200 kg of raw honey and earned them R 12,000 from selling it. It looks as though they are off to a great start with their bees. At the time of writing this blog post, the Sekelekani Cooperative was busy with their second round of honey harvest - and with drying the chilies as an added income this year.

The photos of the different types of beehive fences seen below are from the published articles by Dr Lucy King. (King et al. 2009 and King et al. 2017).

Ida Hansen

Elephant Monitor

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