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Elephants And Bees: How Tiny Social Insects Are Helping People Protect Their Crops From Hungry Giants

Elephants And Bees: How Tiny Social Insects Are Helping People Protect Their Crops From Hungry Giants

By Aritra Kshettry (Inspire-Fellow, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India)

There is seemingly no connection between elephants and bees. They are at the opposite end in terms of body size and behavior. However, both bees and elephants are social animals and this commonality is used by researchers to keep elephants away from peoples’ crop fields. Elephants are large bodied animals and they have very high energy requirement. Furthermore, elephants have a very inefficient digestive system which means that they need to eat much more than they can digest and absorb. This implies that these animals need lot of food; this food can be in the form of grasses or in the form of browse (tree parts). We see that over time, elephants, like humans, have developed a taste for food crops. Crops like maize, paddy, sugarcane, millets and wheat attract elephants since these crops are a rich source of digestible nutrients. An elephant can obtain the same nutrition from 80 kg of maize which it would otherwise get from 200 kg of wild leaves and tree barks. Hence for an elephant, feeding on crops is a natural choice. However, this foraging decision has brought elephants in a conflict of interest with people. People grow food to feed their families either directly or for selling the produce and sustain families. When elephants feed on this produce, there are immense losses faced by people. Hence conservation scientists have been trying to find means to reduce the impact of elephants on agricultural crops. A suite of methods have been used ranging from building fences to shifting to non palatable (cash) crops. Some methods have worked in some cases but largely people have been losing this game since elephants are quick to adapt and learn new means of accessing their favorite food. Researchers in Africa found out that elephants are really scared of bees. The bees, when disturbed by elephants often attack the sensitive parts of the elephants like eyes, ears and tip of the trunk. The African honey bees are also highly aggressive and several observations have been made where elephants shake their heads violently and run away from bees. So the researchers wondered if this natural fear in elephants of bees may be utilized to keep elephants away from crop fields. So they constructed a simple wire fence and suspended bee colonies from them. As soon as the elephant would disturb the fence, hordes or bees would come out and attack the giants making them run away. Furthermore, it was also seen that even playing the sound of bees makes the elephant run away and display evasive tactics such as head shaking. Scientists also used playbacks of bee sound near crop fields so that elephant do not enter the fields. Research also shows that the smell of bee pheromones also deters elephants and scientists are also studying the application of these pheromones in fences to deter elephant from crop lands. Much of this research has been conducted in Africa and similar steps are slowly being used in Asian elephant range countries such as Thailand and India. The Indian railways are now using the bee sound at railway crossings near forests to deter elephants but the efficacy of such measures remains to be tested.

Did You Know

  • Honey bees are the only insect that produces food consumed by humans.
  • Honey bees don’t sleep. Instead, they spend their nights motionless, conserving energy for the next day’s activities.
  • Bee venom is used as a treatment for several ailments, including arthritis and high blood pressure.
  • Drones die after mating with a queen.