Their fear of mice might be an urban legend, but African elephants really are deathly afraid of another tiny creature: bees. In a new study, recordings of buzzing bees scared off entire herds. The findings could lead to new ways of protecting farmland from marauding elephants.
As African elephant habitat is destroyed, the animals increasingly raid farmers' crops. Researchers are investigating several ways to deter them, including heavy-duty fences and chili plants, which elephants avoid. Elephants also avoid trees containing bee hives, for good reason. The native bees of southern Africa (Apis mellifera scutellata) are more aggressive than those of Europe or North America and have been known to chase antagonists more than a kilometer. Although most of the skin of an African elephant is thick, thinner regions on the belly, behind the ears, around the eyes, and inside the trunk may be vulnerable to the insects' stingers.
To see just how strong elephants' aversion to bees was, zoologist Lucy King of the University of Oxford in the U.K. and her colleagues recorded the sounds of angry African bees and, as a control, a waterfall. The researchers played both recordings to families of elephants from speakers hidden in the foliage near their usual resting areas.
The results were dramatic. The sound of angry bees made eight of 17 elephant families begin leaving the area after only 10 seconds. After 80 seconds, all but one group had made their exit. The waterfall noise, on the other hand, drove away only eight of 15 families that heard it, King reports in the 9 October issue of Current Biology.
According to King, the findings may be difficult to apply. Sound equipment is too expensive for most Kenyan farmers, and it's possible that without real bees around, the elephants would learn to ignore the recordings. In addition, she says hives are dangerous and hard to move, and her team is currently testing a combined fence-and-hive strategy.
"The practicality needs to be looked at," agrees Ferrel Osborn, a zoologist with the Elephant Pepper Development Trust in Cape Town, South Africa, an organization that promotes chili as an elephant deterrent. He adds that in some areas bees are inactive at night when much of the raiding occurs.