20 May 2023
BEEHIVE FENCES: TINY SOLUTION, MAMMOTH IMPACT
Born Free has built ten ‘Beehive Fences’ to reduce crop-raiding and promote co-existence between people and elephants in Kenya. Have they had an impact?
It’s World Bee Day and Born Free is joining the celebration. Bees and other pollinators play an essential role in helping keep our planet healthy but, you might be surprised these hardworking insects can help elephants to live alongside local communities in Africa without conflict.
In the matter of a few minutes, an elephant can destroy the only source of livelihood that a subsistence farmer has: his crops. The cycle of planting and waiting, hoping that your crops can make it through tough droughts and pests, just for an elephant to wipe out your farm is a debilitating process.
The use of ‘beehive fences’, with hives suspended along a wire, to enclose farms has proven across many sites in Africa to be an effective solution against elephants. The strategy makes use of a long-standing natural relationship between elephants and bees – elephants are afraid of honeybees and are deterred from coming anywhere near them. Most elephants are discouraged by the sound of bees before approaching a farm, but braver individuals who do come closer will push the wire fence and trigger the bee population to swarm in attack. In this way, the bees act as guardians of the crops.
Harnessing this vital information, our Saving Meru’s Giants team in Kenya constructed an initial ten beehive fences in communities around Meru National Park, in January of this year. Each farm has twelve actual beehives, as well as twelve ‘dummy hives’ interconnected by wires and hung on posts.
Since then, a lot has happened to our beehive fences! Nearly twenty hives have been occupied by bees. The bees arrived in four of the hives within the first couple of weeks of the fences being built. This is great news for bees and good news for farmers. We are hoping that with the wet season well and truly here in Meru, the rain will renew rivers, revitalise flowering plants and provide critical food for bees, as well as elephants. The bees will eventually provide a source of income for the farmers through honey.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though. One night in March, elephants raided farms in Meru. According to Marymagdaline Ekeru, one of our amazing locally employed Elephant Guardians, “The farmers made the customary decision to chase the elephants by frightening them with noises and torches. However, in the process, four elephants were driven into a beehive fence farm. When they arrived at Peter’s farm, one of our beehive fence recipients, they knocked into the beehive fence bringing down three hives and one dummy as well as the posts. On Peter’s farm, four of the twelve beehives are already occupied by bees. This event might be considered a failure of the method, but we were thrilled to learn that none of Peter’s crops were eaten despite the elephants breaking through.”
It’s hard to know what stopped the elephants from eating the crops that night, but this may suggest that the bees were disturbed by the damage to the fence and started to swarm, pushing the elephants away. We are currently putting up camera traps to better record any events and see how elephants behave in response to the beehive fence.
We’re learning more every day about the elephants of Meru and what methods might work. More than anything, we’re learning from the communities around Meru, who have an immense amount of traditional beekeeping knowledge and are bringing new insights into the project all the time. Utilising local knowledge and biodiversity to tackle conservation’s big problems, like human-elephant conflict, offers a key to success.
You can support the team in Meru to continue implementing novel conflict mitigation strategies, such as beehive fences, by donating to Born Free’s End Wildlife Conflict Appeal.