A new study brings hope for reducing conflicts between elephants and farmers in Thailand
Guest post by Antoinette van de Water
Kaeng Hang Maeo district in Eastern Thailand is in an area of high human-elephant conflict. A herd of about 70–80 elephants lives between the protected areas and agricultural land, causing damage to crops almost on a nightly basis. Over four years ago, Bring The Elephant Home (BTEH) and the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station started a joint project to evaluate the effectiveness of beehive fences in deterring Asian elephants, under supervision of Dr. Lucy King. We set up a pilot beehive fence around a subsistence farm surrounded by elephant habitat and installed camera-traps to record the elephants’ reactions to the bees, which belong the species Apis mellifera, or European honeybee.
The first camera trap video we captured showed a small herd of elephants breaking through the newly installed fence. Since then, the team made several adjustments to improve the effectiveness: increasing the bee population, reducing the distance between the hives, and a low-cost trigger mechanism, which opens the hives to activate dormant bees when elephants try to break through the fence.
After spending many nights observing videos, we decided to set up a team of citizen scientists to help analyze videos. The results indicated that over 60% of the elephant groups and over 88% of the individual elephants were deterred by the beehive fence. The elephants that came close to the beehive fence showed typical signs of increased alertness and uncertainty and often slowly backed away. The farm owner reported a strong reduction in crop damage after the beehive fence was installed, as well as additional benefits including the supplemental income, pride, and skills development.
We further looked into the local communities’ attitudes towards elephants where the majority of households experienced negative encounters with elephants at least once a week including damage to crops and property. Although most farmers had not gained any benefit from living with elephants, two-thirds of the respondents reported being tolerant towards elephants, if only they would stop causing damage. This initial study indicated the need for solutions that combine elephant damage reduction with benefits for local people.
We always emphasize that beehive fencing is not a stand-alone solution. The method requires significant investment and may not work in every human-elephant conflict context. To maximize impact, beehive fences should be combined with other methods such as habitat restoration, providing access to benefits to local communities and growing crops that are unpalatable to elephants. For instance, the farm owner in this study started growing chilli and lemongrass along the beehive fence as an extra barrier, to attract bees, and as a source of income. After positive feedback from farmers, Bring The Elephant Home launched the Tom Yum project: named after the spicy, healthy Thai soup of which the ingredients (chilli, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, onion, coriander) are not attractive to elephants. Like beehive fences, the Tom Yum project helps to diversify local livelihoods, create employment, and promote human-elephant coexistence.
Working on these positive projects provided a unique opportunity to learn about the complexity of HEC, fostering connections across the world, thus strengthening awareness and cooperation. It stimulated out of the box thinking, empowered farmers and showed potential ways forward to realize peaceful coexistence.
This study was a collaboration of Bring The Elephant Home Foundation, the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station, Project Dragonfly of Miami University, the Future for Nature Academy, the Elephants and Bees Project of Save the Elephants and global citizen scientists.
Check out the BTEH website for more photos and video of the beehive fence project: https://bring-the-elephant-home.org/project/bee-the-change/
Editor’s Note: One of the important differences between this initiative and others in Asia is the use of non-native European honeybees rather than the native Asian honey bee, Apis cerana. The native honey bee is in decline in parts of Asia, and the potential risk of invasion by non-native bees is unknown, requiring further study.
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van de Water, A., King, L. E., Arkajak, R., Arkajak, J., van Doormaal, N., Ceccarelli, V., … & Matteson, K. (2020). Beehive fences as a sustainable local solution to human‐elephant conflict in Thailand. Conservation Science and Practice, 2(10), e260. [Full Text]