One of earth’s biggest creatures is being saved by insects.
As part of Animal Kingdom’s 20th Anniversary celebration, I attended a Tiffins Talk in which I enjoyed a four-course meal inspired by and specially prepared to accompany a presentation from a Disney scientist about their conservation efforts. During this talk, Dr. Joseph Soltis gave a very engaging talk about how he, his colleague, Dr. Lucy King, and the Disney Conservation Fund are helping to save elephants with honeybees.
What’s the problem?
Elephants are impressive creatures but the species has faced constant threats from humans. Even with reductions in the ivory trade, humans and elephants still come into conflict, especially in countries like Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Sri Lanka. One of the biggest causes of human-elephant conflict is crop raiding, which is when elephants wander onto farmland in search of food. Because they are so big (and have big stomachs), the farms are decimated and the farmers lose both their own food and their source of income. As a result, farmers sometimes kill or hurt elephants to prevent further damage and protect themselves.
What could be done?
If only there were some way to keep elephants out of farms. Standard or even heavy-duty fences won’t work because they are expensive to put up and maintain and elephants might knock them over anyways. By putting collars on elephants to track their location, farmers can be alerted any time elephants cross a virtual fence line and then scare the elephants away enough times until they are conditioned to not even approach a farm. Again, these collars are expensive and still can result in more conflict than is necessary. Other techniques, like the ones outlined in the Save the Elephants Human-Elephant Conflict toolbox, can also help to some degree. Fortunately, some observations from locals led to some scientific discoveries that have significantly reduced human-elephant conflict.
Elephants often retrieve food from trees – whether it is the fruit or the leaves. But one Kenyan guide that was leading Dr. Soltis and Dr. King, shared that he had noticed that elephants never retrieve food from trees with beehives. Elephants in Zimbabwe are also known to forge entirely new paths through jungles to avoid trees with beehives. This is quite curious because elephants have relatively small areas that are sensitive enough to potential bee stings (inside of the trunk, eyes, and ears) and it does not make a lot of sense that such large creatures might systematically avoid bees if they cannot do much damage.
Studies about Elephants’ Fear of Bees
So the researchers set out to see not whether elephants are harmed by bees but instead to study whether elephants are afraid of bees. Rather than using actual bees, researchers played recorded bee sounds using giant speakers hidden in foliage near elephant meeting spots. And then they watched to see what the elephants did. When the bee sound was played, all but one elephant family ran away in under 90 seconds; half of the families ran away in under 10 seconds. In contrast, when just white noise was played (because it is always good science practice to have a control condition), all of the elephant families stayed in the area for about four full minutes or casually walked away. This suggested that elephants have learned about and/or remember their personal experience with bees and that bees do not have a pleasant association. Similar behaviors were observed in elephants in Sri Lanka in response to the sounds of Asian honeybees (King, Pardo, Weerathunga, Kumara, Jayasena, Soltis, & de Silva, 2018).
Communicating about Bees
In addition to running away in response to hearing bee sounds, elephants produced rumble calls, shook their heads, and tried to throw dust on themselves. To better understand this behavior, Dr. Soltis, who is an expert in elephant rumbles and has conducted several studies with the elephants at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, headed up a follow-up study. He wanted to know specifically if elephants’ rumble calls for bees were actually being used in similar ways as to how humans screaming scream “Spider!” or “Mouse!” when they are fearful and want to alert others.
To answer this question, the research team used a similar protocol as with the recordings of bee sounds except in this case, the speakers played recordings of the rumbles that the elephants had made in response to bee sounds. Elephant families moved away from the speakers much more often and moved farther when the rumble calls for bees were played than when just white noise or when modified rumble calls were played. Additionally, families moved faster and shook their heads more when the rumble calls for bees were played than for the other two control sounds. Dusting behavior was not observed to be significantly different across conditions. It seemed that indeed, elephants were communicating their identification of the presence of bees to others so that they all could avoid being stung.
As a result of this discovery, Dr. Soltis, Dr. King and their partners in Kenya wanted to put this research to use. They could have given the farmers some large, expensive speakers to play bee sounds but they did something even better. The research team started testing the effectiveness of bee fences for reducing crop raiding. To set up a bee fence, beehives are set up at the perimeter of farms and connected with wire. Any time an elephant hits the wire, the hives are disturbed and the bees produce swarming sounds. These are the same sounds that elephants are afraid of so the elephant will run away from the farm. The early tests were successful and crop raiding has significantly declined for farms with beehive fences. Not only do the beehive fences protect the farms and thus allow the farmers to keep their main source of income, the honey from the beehives can also be harvested and sold for additional revenue.
Unfortunately, you cannot buy this elephant honey directly outside of Kenya, but you can donate to Save the Elephants using the links here to support this program and prevent further human-elephant conflict.
What would you want to research in partnership with Disney? Comment below!