October 18, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

“I studied Zoology.”

“Oh right, the study of zoos.”

“Not exactly.”

Zoology is the study of ANIMALS and it’s one of those science disciplines that rarely gets the reaction that chemistry or physics have come to expect. The response is normally one of confusion – why would anyone want to study something that has no bearing on our lives?

But it does and a news story this week highlighted that fact. In Kenya and in many other parts of Africa elephant wars are taking place. Humans have pushed into the land of these Pachyderms. The result is that, because these animals need to roam, their wanderings now take them into villages, schools and farms.

It’s the farms where the elephants can do the most damage, because they raid crops. Imagine it: a herd of fifteen elephants in a crop field. In Kenya people are beginning to fight back by shooting and poisoning the animals that stray onto their land. Conservationists have been desperately trying to find a way of deterring the elephants but what could stop a six tonne marauder?

The answer is bees. Elephants, believe it or not, are frightened of honey bees. The insects sting them around the eyes and inside their trunks and the result is so painful that the mammals do all they can do avoid them. Zoologists from Oxford University worked this out in 2002 when they notices that elephants avoided trees containing beehives. Elephants have even given bees even their own alarm call and hearing even the sound of buzzing is enough to make an elephant herd move on.

The same team decided to create a beehive fence. In the Laikipia region of Kenya the scientists looked for farmers whose crops were regularly ruined by elephants. They then suspended beehives on wires and waited to see what would happen.

It was a success. In fact so much so that they decided to do a full scale trial across 60 farms that lasted two years. The results were published last Friday. The bee barriers turned away elephants in 97% of their crop raid attempts. A resounding success. The beehive fences also provided another benefit – the honey the bees made could be sold.

The hope now is to expand the scheme to other vulnerable farming communities. With a bit of imagination the scientists may actually have solved the problem in a way that may also benefit the farmer economically. It is science, zoology, at its best.