Bee the Change

Deforestation, degradation, and fragmentation of their natural habitat have resulted in a rise in human-elephant conflicts, which has landed the Asian elephant a secure position on the list of endangered species. Incidents such as the damage and destruction of property, the raiding of farmers’ crops, and incidents involving injuries and sometimes death of people or elephants are becoming more frequent. The preferred solutions chosen to reduce human-elephant conflicts are generally quite expensive, unsustainable and/or ineffective. Many of these common methods are only effective for a short time as the intelligent creatures promptly find a way to bypass it. For example, elephants use tree branches to push down electric fences so that they can enter plantations without harming themselves. This type of fencing also needs endless fixing and comes with the price of expensive monthly electricity bills.

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Bees and elephants

In Kenya, scientists made the remarkable discovery that elephants are scared or wary of bees! The elephants have even adopted a special call used to warn the rest of the herd when they are in the vicinity of bees. Experiments were conducted by using the sound of bees and the results showed that elephants walked away when they hear the sound of the disturbed bees. In Zimbabwe, researchers found similar results when they mounted beehives in trees that often were damaged by wild elephants. Dr. Lucy King developed the concept of beehive fencing, as a new and sustainable solution to avoid crop raiding in areas highly trafficked by elephants. Whilst electric fencing goes against nature, beehive fences use connections in nature as the solution. It is a solution that provides a plethora of benefits for all involved. The resident communities benefit through the sales of honey and the reduction of elephant-caused damage and destruction of their crops. The pollination work of the bees increases biodiversity and even increases the yield of the crop that they protect. As a result of strategically placed beehive fences, elephants and humans can share the same area in harmony.

Elephants and bees have something in common: as keystone species, they make life possible for others. They play an important role in maintaining the ecosystem they are part of. The removal of a keystone species will have drastically negative consequences which will directly affect the many other species that depend on them. Honeybees are keystone species because they are pollinators. About 33% of the crops in the world depend on pollination by animals such as bees and 60–90% of plant species depend on animal pollinators. Elephants make life possible for others by creating grass fields, trails and water access points. In areas with a dense canopy, elephants open up patches of forest. These light gaps will turn into grass fields and increases the biodiversity of the forest. Many plant species also depend on elephants for seed dispersal and germination. The diet of elephants contains a lot of seeds, which they will spread through their dung kilometres away. The fibrous dung is rich in minerals and an excellent fertilizer. It provides the perfect conditions for seeds to germinate and for fungi to grow.

Why should we care? Because without elephants or bees, even our own species future is at risk. By using beehives as a deterrent strategy, the bees are helping to create harmony in a situation of conflict, whilst improving the biodiversity of the forest.

Beehive fencing is a new phenomenon in Asia and these projects aim to contribute to a global understanding of HEC (Human-Elephant Conflict) solutions. Recently, pilot projects have been launched in Sri Lanka (by Save the Elephants) and North-eastern Thailand (by the Phu Luang Wildlife Research Station). To get an idea of local interest in beehive fencing as a human-elephant conflict mitigation method, Bring the Elephant Home organized an educational tour to the first beehive experiment in Thailand in December of 2015. During the educational tour, 40 local community members, park rangers, NGO staff and scientists from Kanchanaburi learned about the utilization of beehive fencing as a solution to mitigate HEC. The participants had a positive reaction to the proposed method and returned to their village both inspired and enthusiastic about the idea of a new, improved, and more sustainable method of preventing human-elephant conflicts. The knowledge that was gained from this capacity building tour was then incorporated in short-term project proposals designed to help the local community to reach their goal of living at peace and in harmony with the wild elephants of Kanchanaburi.

In March 2016, BTEH conducted a survey amongst 46 plantation owners located in human-elephant conflict areas in Kanchanaburi. Through this survey, we found out that:

  • 54% of the individuals working in agriculture stated that portions of their crops are destroyed by elephants on a daily basis.
  • 70% of the villagers who took the survey would prefer the elephants to be altogether eradicated.
  • 52% of the participants stated that they wouldn’t averse to finding a better way to stop the wild elephants from raiding crops.
  • 94% of the participants showed a great interest in beehive fences: 33% are willing to go ahead with the method of using beehive fences immediately, and 61% would prefer to learn more about this new method before going ahead.
  • 59% of the participants in the survey said that they want to receive support in the form of training on how to construct the beehive fences, 35% on the training of beekeeping and a mere 11% answered that they would like to receive financial support.

The complete research “Human-elephant conflict in western Thailand: Socio-economic drivers and potential mitigation strategies” has been published in the scientific journal PlosOne in June 2018. After the research, networking and study tour was completed, the stakeholders are ready to launch the “Bee the Change” project. Instead of expensive electric fences, we choose to replace them with a smarter and more sustainable solution. The Bee the Change project will have a largely positive impact on the biodiversity of the forest, on the livelihoods of villagers and on the lives the elephants that inhabit it.

Citizen science project with Future for Nature Academy

After the placement of beehive fences at several locations, a number of cameras were placed to monitor the behaviour of elephants. In this way, Antoinette and her team hope to give a statement about the effectiveness of beehive fences. To realise this, a number of 114 videos need to be classified. Given the large assignment, we started a collaboration with the Future for Nature Academy to recruit students and elephant experts for this project. In this “Citizen Science Project” enthusiastic volunteers contribute to the research by helping to analyse a large amount of camera trap data. The project was kicked off with an event on the 15th of January at Wageningen University in collaboration with the Future for Nature Academy. During the event, a group of young scientists learned more about the project, had the opportunity to ask questions and practice together and started analysing right away. What people need to classify in the videos is how many elephants they see, their sex and age group, what behaviour they show and lastly whether or not they break through the fence. The citizen science approach helps to engage with volunteer young scientists in an innovative way and make the project more participatory. The data analysis became a more inclusive and transparent process, which was needed given the complexity of analysing elephant behaviour recorded by the camera traps. Through the process, we established an informed and consensus-based model to reach research results, whilst the process provided opportunities for students to enhance understanding, knowledge and skills for elephant conservation and build strong partnerships.

Special thanks to:

Many thanks to Dr. Lucy King of Save the Elephants for the inspiration and guidance, and the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station for realizing the beehive fence project in Thailand! We are very grateful for the financial support we received for this project from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) of IUCN, WWF and Fondation Ensemble. And of course a big thank you to the Future for Natura Academy and all the citizen scientists who joined this project!

Apart from the research about the effectiveness of the beehive fences, questionnaires will be sent out and interviews will be conducted with beehive fence owners and their neighbours. They will focus on measuring the potential increased well-being of farmers as a result of using beehive fences. These results will also be used for our bigger research about how human-elephant coexistence can be realised. For more information about this research, go to the page about Africa.

We need your help!

If you would like to help us creating more beehive fences, please donate to this campaign. We are looking to raise $3,000 in order to install beehive fences in the areas that need them most.

Help spread the word!

  • Support this project with a donation through this secure link.
  • Please share this page and the Bee the Change video on all of your social media pages.
  • Join our charity bike ride Bike for Elephants to visit the beehive project in Chanthaburi, to have a chance to see elephants in the wild and to raise the needed funds to build more beehive fences
  • Join us on Facebook
  • Travel sustainably: take your time to visit National Parks to see elephants in the wild, instead of tourist places to interact with elephants in captivity.
  • Plant bee-friendly flowers and herbs.

Photo’s: Ana Grillo and Vivi Sriaram