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Published:October 14th, 2007 06:50 EST
Bees Could Help Humans and Elephants Co-exist in Africa

Bees Could Help Humans and Elephants Co-exist in Africa

By Juliet Maruru

As both human and elephant populations grow in Africa, there have been increasing clashes between African residents, mostly rural farmers, and elephants.

In the latter part of 2006, residents of Ng’arua in Laikipia District of Kenya threatened to kill elephants if the Kenya Wildlife Service did not move the elephants from the area. Speaking in Kinamba town, the residents lamented that the animals had destroyed all their crops. "We have no choice if the elephants are not moved within one month but to kill them as they pose a danger to our lives.”

In Zimbabwe, at about the same time as the above incidences, residents were in fear of their lives because elephants had been seen roaming around farms in Sanyati District.

Now researchers are offering hope by revealing that recordings of angry bees are enough to send even big, tough African elephants scrambling for safety. Scientists are saying that this discovery could be used to help farmers deal with invading elephants instead of killing them.

Lucy King, a zoologist and the study leader wanted to see if African honeybees might deter elephants from eating crops. However, before she asked farmers to go to the trouble of setting up hives, she sought direct evidence that bees would scare elephants away.

King found a wild hive inside the hollow of a tree in northern Kenya and set up a minidisk recorder outside. Then, wearing a protective bee suit, she tossed a stone in. "The hive just exploded," she said. King and her assistant hid in a car while waiting for the bees to subside.

Next, King tracked down elephant families in Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya. In multiple trials, she hid a wireless speaker in a fake tree trunk near each group of elephants, and then drove away.

From a distance, King triggered the pre-recorded sound of angry bees while recording the elephants with a video camera.

Half the elephant groups departed within ten seconds. King conducted 17 trials with separate elephant families, and only one family ignored the warning.

Bees cannot sting through thick adult elephant skin, but the insects do find a few vulnerable spots. They are attracted to the elephants' watery eyes and will "go up the trunk, which must be awful," King said.

When King played the sound of a roaring waterfall instead of furious bees to many of the same elephant families, the animals were undisturbed. Even after four minutes, most of the groups stayed put, she and her colleagues reported this week in the journal Current Biology.

King now is studying whether the elephants will continue to avoid the sounds after hearing them several times. She hasn't tested enough groups yet to know.



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