The Interaction Between the African Elephant and the African Honey Bee

The human population in Africa has increased dramatically and encroached into traditionally wildlife rich areas forcing large animals like elephants into smaller and smaller spaces.  Elephants have a huge requirement for food and water so migrate in search of sustenance.  Unfortunately, their travels bring them into conflict with people as new villages etc. are built over natural wildlife corridors.

This human-elephant conflict is becoming particularly serious in Kenya as people are now killing, spearing or poisoning elephants that come onto their land to eat their crops.

The Elephants and Bees Research Project is one of Save the Elephants’ programs designed to explore natural world for solutions to human-elephant conflict.  Led by DPhil researcher Lucy King from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, the project uses knowledge and observation of elephant behaviour to reduce damage from crop-raiding elephants by using African honeybees.

The project explores the use of bee populations in simple wooden beehives as an elephant deterrent and as a social and economic boost to poverty-stricken rural communities through the sustainable harvesting of honey.

This is the abstract of the (fairly) recent paper, Bee Threat Elicits Alarm Call in African Elephants, published on the PLoS web site:

“Unlike the smaller and more vulnerable mammals, African elephants have relatively few predators that threaten their survival.  The sound of disturbed African honeybees Apis meliffera scutellata causes African elephants Loxodonta africana to retreat and produce warning vocalizations that lead other elephants to join the flight.  In our first experiment, audio playbacks of bee sounds induced elephants to retreat and elicited more head-shaking and dusting, reactive behaviors that may prevent bee stings, compared to white noise control playbacks.  Most importantly, elephants produced distinctive “rumble” vocalizations in response to bee sounds.  These rumbles exhibited an upward shift in the second formant location, which implies active vocal tract modulation, compared to rumbles made in response to white noise playbacks.  In a second experiment, audio playbacks of these rumbles produced in response to bees elicited increased headshaking, and further and faster retreat behavior in other elephants, compared to control rumble playbacks with lower second formant frequencies.  These responses to the bee rumble stimuli occurred in the absence of any bees or bee sounds. This suggests that these elephant rumbles may function as referential signals, in which a formant frequency shift alerts nearby elephants about an external threat, in this case, the threat of bees.”

David M. Davison


2 Comments to “The Interaction Between the African Elephant and the African Honey Bee”

  1. Great idea, but will this work over the long run?

  2. The Earth Times reports on Dr. Lucy King receiving the UNEP/CMS Thesis Award for her work:

    David M. Davison

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s