In October 2007 Lucy King and colleagues first made a splash by reporting that African elephants seemed to be rather put off by bees. I was still in Sri Lanka during my big “data collection year” as a graduate student, trying to figure out the social relationships among Asian elephants and recording vocalizations whenever I got a chance. Lucy’s first paper was a curiosity, but then three years later she followed it up with the even more intriguing finding that African elephants even produce alarm calls specific to bees. This got the attention of my advisor at Penn, Dorothy Cheney, who having expended considerable time thinking about such things as monkey alarm calls, dropped me a one-liner: “Have you seen this?”
That was how Lucy’s work work first made it on my radar. It eventually gave rise to the Elephants and Bees Project of Save The Elephants, where Lucy and her team have been applying this knowledge to design their now-famous bee-hive fences as a deterrent against elephant crop raiding. Naturally, the question was immediately asked: could the same work in Asia?
For a while the question floated around unanswered. But that didn’t stop people in Asia from jumping in and trying anyway – either by starting up amateur bee-keeping projects or following the instructions available online to construct their own fences. I kept getting asked about it at public gatherings and kept giving the same reply – “It hasn’t been tested yet.”
As it happened, Lucy had been asked this a lot as well. So when Lucy and I met at a conference a few years later, we were mutually interested in finding an answer. Together we hatched a plan – before the fences themselves could be tried, we needed to know if the elephants would react at all. While there are plenty of aggressive bees and wasps out there, that wasn’t the point. In order to be candidates for fencing, the species had to be manageable. The only Asian honeybee species suitable for household honey production was the ones people were already working with, Apis cerana indica. But they had a reputation for being more docile than the African variety, and given that Asian elephants have different feeding preferences from their African counterparts as well, it wasn’t at all obvious how they’d react.
After scouting out the situation in Sri Lanka, Lucy arrived in Udawalawe in 2014 ready launch. While there were plenty of elephants about, and our individual-IDs made it easy to keep track of who the playbacks were conducted to, one challenge was that the elephants always had to be close enough to the road for the experiment to be performed at a consistent distance. After tinkering with the acoustics, a reasonable method was devised. With help from UWERP and then-graduate student Mickey Pardo, Lucy conducted a series of playback experiments with a similar set-up as what had been used in Kenya (read her original post here).
From the video archives:
Their responses were rather more measured than that of their African cousins. They hesitated at first to respond, reacting just slightly more quickly to the sound of bees than to the sound of white noise generated by a waterfall. That contrast was a ‘control’ to ensure they weren’t simply reacting to hearing a random strange sound they weren’t used to. But we could see they did clearly differentiate between the two, on average moving further away in response to the bee sounds and also vocalizing more. They also showed more investigative or reassurance behavior such as touching each other in the mouth. But they certainly didn’t run away in fear, as African elephants did. Maybe it was because the bees didn’t pose as much of a threat, or maybe Asian elephants simply didn’t have as much experience disturbing bees nesting in tree cavities because of their preference for grazing over browsing. Interestingly, all three bulls in the study showed a tendency to move away. Since bulls are more frequently (if not exclusively) implicated in crop raiding in Sri Lanka, this was a good sign.
So what does this mean? Well, the answer to the question “Are Asian elephants bothered by Asian honey bees?” is a clear “Yes.”
But can this translate into a solution for HEC, namely bee-fences? That is to be seen. Experiments are being conducted elsewhere in Sri Lanka and other countries to answer that question. For the fences to work, not only do the bees have to be effective at driving off elephants, but the local environment has to capable of supporting multiple large colonies of bees. That means lots of flowers, and flowering times must agree with cultivation calendars. A recent study in the central African country of Gabon found that African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are put off from fruit trees by the presence of the local honey bee (Apis mellifera adansonii) but there is a cost to honey production as bees expend energy doing so. As always, this solution is only one piece of the bigger ecological puzzle.