Researchers have found that fences with beehives discourage African elephants from crop-raiding farms – stopping 80 percent of crop raids, reducing human-elephant confrontations and improving food security.

Beehive fence protecting maize. If an elephant touches one of the hives or interconnecting wire, the beehives all along the fence line will swing and release the bees. (Photo: Lucy King)
Beehive fence protecting maize. If an elephant touches one of the hives or interconnecting wire, the beehives all along the fence line will swing and release the bees. (Photo: Lucy King)

Impacts

  • Introducing the fences stopped around 80 percent of elephant crop raids, in turn reducing human-elephant conflicts and elephant killings, increasing crop yields and leading to greater food security.
  • The successful Kenyan trials led directly to the adoption of beehive fences being included in the Conservation and Management Strategy for the Elephant in Kenya 2012-2022.
  • Beehive fences have also been successfully applied in four other African countries (Tanzania, Mozambique, Uganda and Botswana), and are being tested in an additional six countries, including India and Sri Lanka.
  • In Tanzania, UNESCO funded a beehive fence project following increased human-elephant conflict and a rise in elephant deaths.
  • In Uganda, the Malaika Honey project supports local farmers in beehive fence-building and beekeeping, which supplements their income with the sale of ‘elephant-friendly’ honey and beeswax.
  • Beehive fences have also been reported to improve crop yield through increased bee pollination.
Community with beehive fence. (Photo: Lucy King)
Community with beehive fence. (Photo: Lucy King)

About the research

As the elephant population in Africa is increasing following successful conservation efforts, conflicts between humans and elephants are also becoming more common. Free-roaming elephants are tempted by farm crops and are undeterred by traditional deterrents such as thorn bushes and ditches. Subsistence farmers are unable to afford electric fencing, and have occasionally shot or poisoned elephants to stop crop raids.

With lives and livelihoods threatened by elephant crop raids, researchers from the University of Oxford explored alternative deterrents that are affordable and non-violent. Research in Kenya by Professor Fritz Vollrath and Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton – funded by the ESRC and the Natural Environment Research Council, among others – confirmed local anecdotal evidence that African elephants avoid feeding on acacia trees that hold beehives.

Further studies with Dr Lucy King were carried out in 2010 to identify the factors associated with beehives that deter elephants. Trials found that the sound of swarming bees resulted in over 90 per cent of elephants moving away from the source of the sound, and that elephants have a call warning others in the herd to keep away.

Field trials helped develop a model for building effective beehive fences using inexpensive easily available materials. The fence trials were carried out on two farms in Kenya - one containing beehives, and the other without. In a six-week period, the one with beehives had fewer crop raids and higher productivity than in a similar previous period, whilst the unprotected farm lost 90 per cent of its crops due to elephant damage. Subsequently, a larger study involving 34 farms and 45 attempted crop raids recorded only one elephant incursion in two years.

Elephant family running from bees. (Photo: Lucy King)
Elephant family running from bees. (Photo: Lucy King)