Buzz off! Elephants give bees a wide berth

Despite the well-known cartoon image of an elephant being terrified by a mouse, there is no formal evidence of these huge animals being frightened by tiny rodents. They are, however, according to research, more than a little put out by honey bees.

Elephants in the wild are threatened by habitat loss and regularly come into conflict with humans. In particular, they cause vast amounts of damage to the crops of poor farmers. Oxford University zoologist Lucy King has studied African elephants (Loxodonta africana) and found that they avoid African honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata), inspiring the creation of  “beehive fences” as a successful means of small-scale crop protection.

Now, in a new study published in the journal Current Biology, King and her colleagues are investigating whether a similar strategy will work with Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). 

As with their African counterparts, Asian elephant numbers suffer from habitat loss and human conflict. Along with establishing protected areas and corridors for wildlife, giving farmers methods for protecting their crops is crucial for elephant conservation. 

Because artificial deterrents have proved unsuccessful, natural biological alternatives are being explored. 

In the new study, King and her team played a recording of a disturbed hive of cavity-dwelling Asian honey bees (Apis cerana indica) to 120 wild elephants in 28 different groups resting under trees in Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka. 

When the bee recordings were played, the elephants responded by moving significantly further away from their resting site, compared to control trials when undifferentiated white noise was played. 

The elephants also had increased vocalisation rates, along with investigative and reassurance behaviours, in response to bee sounds.

The researchers used recordings of A. cerana indica bees mainly because it is the species most manageable for honey production in Asia. Although it is smaller and appears less aggressive than its larger African cousin, the report says, it is morphologically similar, capable of stinging attacks, and contains a similar sized venom gland. 

“It therefore appears physically capable of causing discomfort to elephants,” the authors conclude. 

They completed 14 bee and 14 control playback trials. Of these, 22 were to female and family groups. Six were to solitary bulls.

The researchers found that the elephants moved away more often when confronted by the bee recordings compared to the control trials, although the difference was not great. Bee sounds, however, did prompt them to move significantly further away.

The authors suggest further study would be valuable, and recommend investigation of how the elephants would react when exposed to live bees.

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