Making science work for development

Elephants and local farms

Using honeybees to keep crop-raiding elephants out of farmer's fields

In many parts of Africa, elephant numbers are on the rise. While a success for conservation, elephants often wander out of national parks and into nearby farmlands where they eat or trample farmers’ crops, devastating local food security and livelihoods. Researchers from the University of Oxford have helped develop an affordable and non-violent elephant deterrent: beehive fences. These innovative fences are now used in several parts of Africa, helping to protect crops from roaming elephants and boost food security and local farming businesses.

The growing numbers of African elephants are a great success story for conservationists, but the challenge of containing such large and intelligent animals within national parks is now posing a serious problem for local communities. Arable farms offer a tempting source of food to a roaming elephant, which can wipe out an entire farm's crop. Elephants have learnt to overcome common deterrents such as hedgerows and trenches, and many poorer farmers cannot afford the more effective electric fences. As a result, conflict between humans and elephants is increasing. Farmers are resorting to poisoning or shooting these protected animals, while a significant number of people are also injured or killed during elephant crop-raids.

The size and intelligence of elephants makes them difficult to keep out of farmers’ land (Image Rowley Taylor)

Researchers at the University of Oxford recognised the growing need to find effective elephant deterrents that are both affordable and non-violent. With support from a range of funders, including the Natural Environment Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council, they studied elephant movement and behaviour, and how to influence it. Anecdotal evidence from local communities suggested that African elephants actively avoid bees, and so researchers began to study elephant feeding behaviour on acacia trees hung with beehives. The researchers found that just the sound of bees is enough to keep elephants away from a certain area – 94% of animals studied moved away from audio sources of buzzing while also emitting a low frequency rumble to warn other elephants in the area to retreat.

A small-scale pilot study in two Kenyan farms found that hanging beehives on wire fencing around fields kept elephants away. This was then scaled-up into a larger study of 34 communally-run Kenyan farms. Over the two year programme, there were 45 attempted elephant raids, but only one elephant actually crossed a beehive fence. Further field trials developed a model of how to build an effective beehive fence using straightforward methods and easily obtained materials. This was made freely available online in a comprehensive Beehive Fence Construction Manual.

The beehive fences now protect the farms from inquisitive elephants (Image Dr Lucy E King)

Beehive fences have proven popular and are now being implemented widely in Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda. The fences have greatly reduced crop-raiding and human-elephant conflict, improving both safety and food security for many communities. New evidence has suggested that the bees may also help to improve crop yield through increased pollination. Thanks to the fences, farmers are reporting surpluses in crop yields – some for the first time in almost two decades – which they can sell at market. The beehive fences have also provided further benefits for the farmers through sales of ‘elephant-friendly’ honey and other bee products such as beeswax candles.

A simple yet innovative solution, beehive fences have helped boost the resilience of local farming businesses, while also allowing the peaceful co-existence of humans and African elephants.

Read more about this research in the original impact case study submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. 

Economic and Social Research Council | Natural Environment Research Council