Bees to keep elephants away ?

Project Honeybee

By Raisa Wickrematunge

The battle between man and beast is as old as time. With the population explosion, more wildlife homelands are being encroached upon. This explains the large number of species which are endangered or extinct, worldwide. However, some animals don’t give up their territory without a fight.

The so-called human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka has killed many people over the years, and hundreds of elephants.
According to the Centre for Conservation and Research website, around 150 elephants and as many as 50 people die each year. The Department of Wildlife Conservation says that 228 elephants and 50 people were killed in 2009 alone.

An Unusual Deterrent

There have been many attempts to deter elephants from encroaching into farmland, the most popular method being via electric fence. Last week, however, the Wildlife Department officially announced a most unusual deterrent — the local honeybee.
Wildlife and Agrarian Services Minister S. M. Chandrasena announced that honeybee hives would be set up at the entry points to villages which elephants habitually used. The theory was that the elephants would not enter into areas where bees were present. Trenches would also be dug to further deter elephants.

What’s The Buzz?

The decision to try this novel method follows its partial success in Africa.
One academic study by Lucy E. King et. al (2009) titled ‘Beehive fence deters crop-raiding elephants’ records an experiment in Kenya using empty bee hives. A fence of bee-hives was set up on one farm, sheltered by thatch. The hives were connected by wire. The farm with the hive fence experienced seven successful elephant raids compared to the other farm in the study, which was raided 13 times by elephants. However, while the farm without the fence had almost no crop left to harvest, the other did salvage much more of its crop. The farmers themselves expressed a desire to set up similar fences on every farm, and even discussed growing vegetation to encourage bees to nest there.
However, the study shows that elephant raids were not completely eradicated. Some of the elephants simply found alternative routes into the farm, where hives were not present. The fences too broke under the weight of the hives. Once inside the farms, the hive fence no longer acted as a deterrent.

The Wildlife Department

The Wildlife Department confirmed that the project was already being launched. Director General Elephant Conservation, Pathirathne explained however that it was very much in the experimental stage. “This is a new concept. We have to see how the elephants would react. It will take time to see the results,” Pathirathne observed. The problem, he explained, was that Africa had different, fiercer bees. “We’ll have to see if our local bees have the same effect,” Pathirathne said. He added that an NGO had requested for permission to launch the project, and had been given the green light.
One problem with employing honeybees would be the effect on villagers — would they be stung by the angry bees? Pathirathne said that since the villagers had coexisted with bees before, he did not think this would pose much of a problem.

Experts Weigh In

Chairman and scientist at the Centre for Conservation and Research (CCRSL), Prithiviraj Fernando said that the important thing would be to set it up as a trial, with proper monitoring. At the end, it would at least be clear whether bees were, in fact, effective. He added that the idea was that elephants would walk into ‘bee boxes’ and get stung, so people would not be adversely affected. However, he noted that this method had not worked very well in other countries.
Director, Mihimaw Science Foundation, Sampath Ariyasena said that it was the buzzing of the bees that frightened the elephants. He too opined that the people would not be threatened by the presence of bees. In fact, he said people would even benefit by making honey, thus earning additional income. He added that the most widely used method, electric fences, was not a popular one, and biological barriers — such as bees, or dug trenches — were much more sustainable. Ariyasena added that last August many people had been killed by elephants, prompting a campaign at the Weerawila junction on August 20. He added that encroachment into elephant territory was the main reason for the increasing number of attacks per year, especially with more development projects.
Environmentalist Jagath Gunawardena, however, had some reservations on the scheme. “My first issue is I don’t know if the Asian elephant has the same phobia as the African one,” he commented. He further said that there was no way of measuring the feasibility of the scheme other than releasing the bees and seeing if they were, indeed, a deterrent to elephants. Another problem is the activity of the bees themselves. “Bees only leave the hive to gather honey. There won’t be much activity outside the hive,” he said. As such, the elephants might not feel threatened by the bees. However he added that a trip wire mechanism, rigged so the bees would fly out when an elephant approached, could be effective, at the cost of people, who might be stung by the angry bees. “I will be open minded, and see whether this pilot study is effective,” he said.
Gunawardena explained that only one species of bee would be suitable for this experiment, as the other two did not live in hives. “Only the atis indica, or normal honeybee, could be used in this experiment,” he said. He added that attempting to introduce the African bee could have disastrous consequences. A similar experiment in the American tropics had led to the African bee breeding with the local species to create a killer bee.
Hotelier and Director of Switch Asia, Srilal Miththapala said that using honeybees could be a deterrent in a small way, but added that the problem was much bigger than that. He added that the experiment had been only partially successful in India and Kenya.
The intelligence of elephants was a further problem. “They will see an area where there are no bees and go through there. You can’t have the hives too close together, only every 5 or 6 metres,” Miththapala pointed out.
Even electric fences did not always work — Miththapala related the story of how one crafty elephant at Udawalawe had realised that the fences were not electrified during the day. He would carefully pick his way through the fence and wander where he pleased.
The problem was exacerbated as elephants had road maps in their heads — pathways they habitually used. People would build villages on those pathways. “People knew what to grow in the past. The elephants would then go past without bothering anyone. But when they see fruits like papaw and banana easily accessible, they would stop for a meal,” Miththapala explained. In a vicious circle, some elephants would then get used to raiding and would keep visiting villages.

Other Methods Of Deterrence

Electric fences are not the only way to stop a hungry elephant. Another popular method is a chilli bomb, made with chilli powder. When thrown it emits acrid, chilli flavoured smoke. However this too was only of limited use. Fire crackers could also be lit to frighten elephants, but eventually they all got used to the noise, Miththapala said. Though a difficult task, masking the smell of ripening paddy could also help keep elephants away. As for the bees? “Let them try and see,” a cautious Miththapala said.
One thing is clear, that this is a problem with no easy one-stop solution. Bees have helped save crops in Africa, but not wholly stopped hungry elephants from raiding farms. Will they be more effective in Sri Lanka? The results in other countries were lacklustre, but ultimately, only time will tell whether the experiment pays off.