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Buzz off. An African elephant runs from the recorded sound of buzzing bees.

Can Bees Save the Elephants?

Aggressive bees might soon protect African elephants by warding them away from sites of potential conflict with humans. A new study suggests that the strategy could work if it clears a few practical hurdles.

The African elephant population is a quarter to a half the size it was in 1979, greatly affecting ecosystems and the tourism industry. And with human populations growing, elephants are increasingly likely to be shot for encroaching on farms. What's needed is a way to keeping elephants away. African honey bees are known to be aggressive nest guarders. When scientists saw a particularly vicious attack on a captive elephant--and the elephant's resulting bee phobia--they thought of using bees to mark certain areas as pachyderm-free.

To test the idea, the team hung logs containing hives from selected acacia trees along a river frequented by elephants in central Kenya. The logs were prepared in the manner of local Masai tribespeople, who tend wild bees for honey. Elephants commonly strip the bark from acacia trees to get the sap, but the researchers found no damage on the six trees with active hives. Empty hives and recorded buzzing also deterred elephants but were not as effective as live bees, report zoologist Fritz Vollrath of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and a colleague online 1 November in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

With this proof of concept in hand, the researchers are trying to figure out how to scale up the practice to protect entire farms--and how to convince farmers to adopt it. Vollrath says hive density in the wild can reach 10 hives per tree, which would create a large barrier if spread across a row of trees. Furthermore, local beekeepers could easily maintain the hives and might even profit from it by exporting honey, he says.

"It is an excellent idea," says molecular biologist L. E. L. (Bets) Rasmussen of the Oregon Graduate Institute in Beaverton, because it activates elephants' sense of sight and hearing, and probably smell. This should make elephants more likely to remember danger spots, she says.

Related sites
The Mpala Research Centre
Save the Elephants, partner in the research Rasmussen's Web page