Can bees help farmers in Sri Lanka deter elephants from their crops? Bee fences in Asia – Part 1.

The tiny bee vs. the world’s largest land mammal…

Guest post by Kylie Butler

Elephants outside Wasgamuwa National Park / Apis cerana bees being transferred into a hive (Photos: Kylie Butler)

Over a decade ago now, Dr. Lucy King developed the beehive fence as an elephant deterrent, capitalising on a then-recent discovery that African elephants avoided African honeybees (Vollrath & Douglas-Hamilton, 2002). The beehive fence is a relatively simple, inexpensive deterrent, aiming to be a tool that communities can use independently following set-up. The basic premise is that a series of beehives surround an area to be protected from elephants, and if elephants attempt to enter, they will disturb the beehives, causing the colonies to swarm (refer to King et al. 2009; 2017 for more details). It should come as no surprise, that the success of multiple beehive fence trials in Africa, led to a curiosity as to whether this technique could also help Asian communities experiencing comparable levels of crop-raiding.

As part of Dr. King’s ‘Elephants and Bees’ project, I had the pleasure and challenge of testing beehive fences, in Dewagiriya Village, Sri Lanka. Dewagiriya is a small paddy-farming community of around 45 permanent households. It is located approximately ten kilometres from Wasgamuwa National Park which is home to more than 400 wild elephants. Elephants frequently venture outside the park, entering nearby villages to forage on crops, vegetables, and fruits. In Dewagiriya village, crop-raiding occurs year-round and community members struggle to protect their livelihoods and homes from nocturnal pachyderm visitors.

(See below to read about the playback experiments performed by Lucy King & the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, to gauge the response of wild elephants to honeybees.)

Elephant damage to a house.

It is a unique experience turning up to a new community, to introduce the seemingly absurd idea of deterring elephants with bees. My only (very loose) connection to Dewagiriya was that the family of my field assistant’s best friend’s mother lived there. I was aware that as a female research student from middle-class, urban Australia, I was an outsider and a curiosity. I was also conscious that my textbook knowledge of human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka was nothing compared to the lived experience of the Dewagiriya community, and that I had a lot to learn.

However, people were very welcoming and, feeling generally limited in their capacity to protect their crops from elephants, were keen to give beehive fencing a chance. I stressed that we did not know if the fences would help but expectations were high. Between 2014 and 2017, my small team of local and international field assistants and I worked with the Dewagiriya community and established Sri Lanka’s first beehive fence trial.

The community identified home gardens as particularly vulnerable to elephants, and we chose ten gardens to surround with beehive fences as well as ten ‘control’ gardens which remained unfenced. For three years, we recorded data on all elephant sightings and entries into home gardens, and on bee colonisations and hive health. Together, we built fences, fixed posts, monitored hives, and practised beekeeping. My talented, bi-lingual field assistant Supun translated back and forth as I learned about the challenges and joys of life in Dewagiriya Village, and specifically of co-existing (willingly or not) with elephants.

So, the big question: did beehive fencing effectively deter Asian elephants from crop-raiding (in Dewagiriya Village)?

Spoiler alert: there is no simple response.

The short answer is that the fences demonstrated effectiveness. Significantly less elephant incursions occurred at home gardens surrounded by beehive fences compared to control gardens, and this effect strengthened as hive occupations increased. This result was both exciting and encouraging. However, the question remains: was it enough? 43% of elephant approaches resulted in elephants entering home gardens, usually causing some damage, and creating danger for the family inside.

On reflection, (and in my personal opinion), two key barriers to beehive fence success in Dewagiriya Village stood out: (a) practical challenges of beekeeping; and (b) community motivation, willingness to participate and capacity.


Practical challenges of beekeeping

Prior to beginning our beehive fence trial, beekeeping was not common in Dewagiriya. A few elders harvested wild forest honey, and a couple of people used clay pots to attract wild bees. Overall, beekeeping was a learning curve. Teaching a new skill, at the same time as introducing a new elephant deterrent, in addition to the busy day-to-day lives farming and nights spent awake waiting for elephants, is a big ask.

Natural hive occupations were low, meaning colonies had to be purchased and transported from Kandy and Colombo, adding considerable expense to the fences. Our only option was to use the Asian honeybee, Apis cerana cerana, which is less aggressive than African or European honeybees. During the dry season, we had to provide food and water for the bees, and during the rainy season, high winds and storms disturbed the hives. As a result, hive health suffered, and colonies absconded frequently.

Honey production, which was a major incentive for participating families, was minimal. People lost interest in beekeeping or found that the practical challenges of beekeeping with hives suspended from posts, in an environment not particularly amenable to widespread beekeeping, were too great.  

Community motivation, willingness to participate, and capacity

Motivation for using beehive fences fluctuated throughout the trial. Initial excitement wavered when it took time to source colonies or when colonies absconded. When planting or harvesting, people had little time to maintain fences, rendering it a low priority when they were uncertain of fence effectiveness.

Most families felt the beehive fences slowed elephants down. They believed elephants thought the connecting wires were ‘electric’ and paused, giving people time to chase them away using ‘traditional’ techniques such as throwing firecrackers, shouting, and using torch lights. However, they were not able to rely on the beehive fences as the primary line of defence.

The relationship and dynamics between myself and the community was interesting. I often found people told me what they thought I wanted to hear, which was generally that they loved the fences. Yet actions didn’t always reflect this. It was only in my third and fourth years, that some community members felt comfortable to openly discuss challenges or frustrations with their beehive fences. These conversations typically occurred informally, while working on the fences or beekeeping together, or sharing tea or food. During more structured interviews, people reverted back to sharing only positive thoughts. While difficult to analyse in an academic context, the value of knowledge generated through informal conversation cannot be overstated.

Finally, people’s capacity to maintain and continue using their fences once our trial ended was extremely limited. Despite being relatively inexpensive compared to other techniques, no households in the community could afford to replace posts, hive parts, or colonies. After three years, only three participating families were confident in their beekeeping skills. Although we tried to set up local, ongoing support, this unfortunately did not eventuate. When I visited the village early this year (2020), only one beehive fence remained, and community leaders said they had received no assistance since 2018.

Editor’s note: Is that it for the beehive fence approach in Asia? Not quite. Stay tuned next week, for Part 2, a study conducted in Thailand!

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REFERENCES

King, LE, Lala, F, Nzumu, H, Mwambingu, E & Douglas-Hamilton, I 2017, ‘Beehive fences as a multidimensional conflict-mitigation tool for farmers coexisting with elephants’, Conservation Practice and Policy, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 743 – 752.

King, LE, Lawrence, A, Douglas-Hamilton, I & Vollrath, F 2009, ‘Beehive fence deters crop-raiding elephants’, African Journal of Ecology, vol. 47, pp. 131 – 137.

Vollrath, F & Douglas-Hamilton, I 2002, ‘African bees to control African elephants’, Naturwissenschaften, vol. 89, pp. 508 – 511.

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