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.

The Consequences of Irresponsible Tourism

By Salik Ansar & SdS

Tourist feeding elephants.

September 27th is World Tourism Day, so today we offer some more reflections based on the Udawalawe experience.


Until the recent COVID-19 epidemic halted travel around the globe, the island of Sri Lanka thrived on tourism. A big part of the country’s GDP is attributed to tourism. According to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Association, 783,000 tourists visited Sri Lanka’s national parks in 2018, which is roughly 38% of the travelers who entered the country. The parks earned over 2 billion rupees (over $11 million USD) in entrance fees alone. Clearly, elephants have a huge economic value (more about this here).

Continue reading

Baby tantrums

We’ve temporarily halted field work due to the pandemic. So, we thought this was a good time to bring you some stories from our archives of field notes! In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s an incident that helped us appreciate just how little we understand about what goes on beneath the surface of an elephant’s mind. Happy Mother’s Day!

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August 22 2012

Can you tell what’s going on in this video? Well, if you know the elephants individually, there’s quite an intriguing story behind it. Read on to see what’s happening, and see if you can follow the video…

Continue reading

Old Acquaintances

By SdS

Join us for An Evening With Elephants at EVE Encinitas on November 2nd, 5-7:30pm for a special in-person event to learn more!


A page from our original ID catalogue from 2005, with a female ID’d as [047] on top.

[047] 2008

[047] in 2008.

When I was starting the project in 2005, learning to recognize individual elephants was tricky. Building the photo catalogue was laborious, we went through videos frame by frame trying to distinguish an ear flap here, a tiny hole there. But even then, there were a some who looked so unique that it was enough to see them once – they were difficult to forget. Continue reading

Call Combinations Differ Among Living Elephants

The living elephants – Asian elephant, African forest elephant and African savannah elephant.

Guest post by Michael Pardo

Ask most people what sound an elephant makes and they are likely to think of a trumpet. In reality though, elephants produce an incredible variety of different vocalizations. The most common call is a deep, pulsating rumble, so low-pitched that human observers sometimes feel it more than hear it. Elephants also roar—powerful, bellowing sounds that carry across the landscape. And sometimes, they give combination calls, in which one or two rumbles and roars are stitched together with no pause for breath.

I visited Udawalawe in 2014 to work with the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, and was especially fascinated by these combination calls. Combining meaningful units into sequences with an additional meaning is a key component of human language, but there are relatively few examples of this phenomenon in other species. Listening to the Udawalawe elephants, I was struck by the fact that they nearly always produced combination calls in the same order: a single roar followed by a single rumble. Why was this? Could it be analogous to grammatical rules in human language? Or could it be as simple as an anatomical constraint that made it difficult for the elephants to produce a rumble before a roar? Continue reading

The Folly of Fences

Electric fences that split forested habitat are all too common. As a result, occurrences like this are frequent.

Sri Lanka is part of the ancestral home of Asian elephants and a skeleton traced to this population now serves as the definitive “type” specimen. They existed before settlers colonized and cultivated, before the ancient tanks were built, before the kings and kingdoms, colonizers and governments. This was their land long before humankind set foot on it to set about defining visible and invisible boundaries for ourselves and everything else. Yet here we are, and we are here to stay, so our fates are now linked. An elephant is more than a mere animal or symbol. It is the most un-ignorable occupant of a swiftly vanishing world that harbors an infinitely old and precious natural heritage. It is also a force of nature that annually claims human lives. Therein lies the crux of the difficulty. There’s just one question we need to ask ourselves: do we want elephants (and their bretheren) to persist on this little island, or not? I pose this question on World Elephant day because we are at a juncture that will decide the outcome. Continue reading

Mind Over Matter

Those sneaky sneaks!

It was a perfectly framed shot of a young elephant breaking the electric fence, perhaps even looking a little gleefully smug about it. Still this was a relatively common incident, and while it was nice to catch at least one culprit in the act, the observation was hardly a breakthrough (pun intended). But as we watched on, it was what came next that was so beautifully, endearingly meaningful that we couldn’t help watching again, and again, and again. Continue reading

Social Structure in South Indian Elephants

Guest post by Nandini Shetty

A group of elephants visit the grasslands surrounding the Kabini Reservoir in Southern India. Photo: Kabini Elephant Project

India includes some of the largest populations of Asian elephants in the world: an estimated ~26 000 to 28 000 elephants distributed across four regions. Of the four regions, southern India includes the single largest population of Asian elephants in the world (~14 000) and elephants are distributed across the Western and Eastern Ghats.

I studied the ecology and behaviour of Asian elephants as part of an ongoing long-term project on elephants, the Kabini Elephant Project, which was started in March 2009 to study the social life of elephants. Continue reading

The Secret Life of Elephants

We have the pleasure of watching elephants in broad daylight in precious few places like Udawalawe, where they are habituated enough to be placid and tolerant of onlookers. Indeed, one can get rather spoiled in this particular Park, because even the birds are unafraid and will happily sit and pose for your clumsy photograph from inches away. At times, certain exhibitionist pachyderms even appear to put on a show for the gawking crowds:

But all is not paradise. Continue reading

The Buzz about Elephants and Bees

An elephant family rests under a tree in the hot midday heat. Situations like this were perfect for the playback experiments.

by SdS

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?” Continue reading