JOHANNESBURG — Eek, a bee!
Lore has it that elephants are afraid of mice, but scientists have now discovered that elephants are truly afraid of bees — and that the pachyderms even sound an alarm when they encounter them. The researchers hope this discovery can help save farmers' crops from elephants.
And they hope it will save elephants too.
Conflict between humans and elephants in countries like Kenya occur often. A single hungry elephant can wipe out a family's crops overnight. Farmers will huddle by fires all night during the harvest season. When an elephant nears, the farmers spring up with flaming sticks while their children bang on pots and pans. Not all fields can be guarded, and sometimes the elephants aren't frightened off.
Farmers sometimes kill elephants for raiding their crops. Rampaging elephants have also killed people, and they are then hunted down by park rangers.
The discovery that elephants emit low-frequency alarm calls around bees could help lessen these conflicts, said Lucy King, a researcher into animal behavior whose paper on elephants alarm calls was published in a journal of the Public Library of Science last week.
Farmers could make "bee fences" by stringing up hives on poles around ten yards apart, King said. A strong wire connecting the poles would cause them to swing when an elephant walks into it, disturbing the bees. The swarm bothers elephants so much that they flee, emitting low rumblings inaudible to the human ear that warn other elephants nearby.
"It's impossible to cover Africa in electric fences," King said in an interview. "The infrastructure doesn't exist in many places and it would restrict animals' movement. This could be a better way to direct elephants away from farmers' crops."
King's findings are based on two separate experiments, part of a project by Oxford University and Save the Elephants. In the first, she played recorded bee sounds near elephants, causing them to flee. For her second experiment, King hung ultra-sensitive microphones from trees and recorded elephant rumblings.