UOA05-20: Using honey bees as an effective deterrent for crop-raiding elephants
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentBiological Sciences
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Biological Sciences: Ecology
Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences: Forestry Sciences
Summary of the impact
In many parts of Africa, farmers and African elephants have to share the
same land, and crop-raiding by elephants leads to serious conflict. A
simple, but highly effective, solution to this problem has been developed
on the basis of research at the University of Oxford's Department of
Zoology. The research identified that elephants are frightened of bees and
will actively avoid them. Since 2010 this discovery has led to the
construction of protective beehive fences around farmers' fields, which
have reduced human-elephant conflict, improved food security and provided
farmers with additional income from honey. The concept is being applied in
five countries across the continent.
The increase in numbers of African elephants in the last 20 years has
been hailed as a conservation success story. However, elephants cannot
easily be contained within national parks, and their roaming behaviour
means that they come into frequent contact with farmers outside protected
areas. Arable farms provide an easy source of nutritious food and
crop-raiding by elephants is a serious problem, threatening farmers' lives
and livelihoods. Competition for space is intensifying as Africa's
population grows. In many African countries the elephant is the most
significant conflict species; in Tanzania, for example, elephants kill
around 40-50 people and injure a further 30-40 every year. A three year
study into elephant movements in relation to protected areas, led by
Professor Fritz Vollrath of the University of Oxford Department of
Zoology, noted that `the areas required by elephants are so large that it
would often be unsustainable to plan for their conservation solely within
officially protected areas. This realisation underscores the importance of
reducing conflict and planning human-elephant coexistence'1.
It is difficult to keep elephants off farmland because of their size and
intelligence: electric fences can be very effective, but are unaffordable
for most farmers; trenches can be filled in and crossed by elephants; and
traditional thorn-bush barriers offer little protection. Incidents of
elephant deaths by shooting or poisoning are an increasing concern, and
there is a need to find effective farmer-managed deterrents that are
socially and economically suitable.
Anecdotal evidence from local people had suggested that African elephants
have an aversion to bees. Professor Vollrath, in conjunction with Dr Iain
Douglas-Hamilton (CEO of the charity `Save the Elephants', and also
Associate Researcher at the University of Oxford) was the first to
investigate and identify this behaviour formally. A study conducted in
Kenya and published in 2002 demonstrated that elephants avoided feeding on
acacia trees hung with beehives. At this stage it was not clear whether
sound, smell or other factors repelled the elephants2.
A subsequent study by Vollrath, Douglas-Hamilton, and Dr Lucy King of the
University of Oxford's Department of Zoology, aimed to identify the
factors from beehives that deterred the elephants. 17 elephant families at
rest were played recordings of disturbed wild African bees; 94% of the
elephants moved away from the source of the sounds within 80 seconds, and
eight families moved within 10 seconds. Elephants thus respond with alarm
to the buzz of aggressive bees and move away from the sound source. The
evidence suggested that elephants can identify bees by sound alone,
indicating that they may associate the sound with a negative historical
event3. This research was further developed by King in
collaboration with Dr Joseph Soltis (a bioacoustician from Disney's Animal
Kingdom). The results demonstrated that elephants emit a low frequency,
infrasonic rumble in response to disturbed bee sounds that warns other
elephants in the area to retreat. Alarmed elephants also engage in
head-shaking and dusting, reactive behaviours that may help to prevent bee
These behavioural discoveries broke new ground and encouraged the
researchers to develop and test a novel application. A small pilot study
at Laikipia, Kenya, investigated whether beehives might be used as an
effective means of protecting crop-raided farms. Two farms were studied,
one partially protected by a 90 metre wire fence hung with nine beehives.
Over a six week period, the farm with the beehive fence experienced fewer
raids and consequently had higher productivity; the unprotected farm lost
90% of its crops5. A subsequent larger study involved 34
communally-run Kenyan farms. Over two years, 45 different raids (or
attempted raids) by elephants were monitored, during which only one
incident of an elephant crossing a beehive fence was recorded. This showed
that the beehive fence was considerably more effective as a barrier than
References to the research
1. Douglas-Hamilton I, Krink T, Vollrath F. (2005) Movements and
corridors of African elephants in relation to protected areas.
Naturwissenschaften 92: 158-163. doi: 10.1007/s00114-004-0606-9 Study
examining the complexity of elephant ranges, which are not confined to
2. Vollrath F, Douglas-Hamilton I. (2002) African bees to control African
elephants. Naturwissenschaften 89: 508-511. doi: 10.1007/s00114-002-0375-2
First study establishing that beehives can protect trees from being
foraged by elephants.
3. King LE, Douglas-Hamilton I, Vollrath F. (2007) African elephants run
from the sound of disturbed bees. Current Biology 17: R832-R833. doi:
10.1016/j.cub.2007.07.038 First study identifying that elephants
react with alarm to bee sounds.
4. King LE, Soltis J, Douglas-Hamilton I, Savage A, Vollrath F. (2010)
Bee threat elicits alarm call in African elephants. PLoS ONE 5: e10346.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010346 First evidence of warning calls
made by elephants in response to bees.
5. King LE, Lawrence A, Douglas-Hamilton I, Vollrath F. (2009) Beehive
fence deters crop-raiding elephants. Afr J Ecology 47: 131-137. doi:
10.1111/j.1365-2028.2009.01114.x Pilot study investigating how
beehive fences might work to protect farms from elephants.
6. King LE, Douglas-Hamilton I, Vollrath F. (2011) Beehive fences as
effective deterrents for crop-raiding elephants: Field trials in northern
Kenya. Afr J Ecol. 49: 431-439. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2028.2011.01275.x Report
on the first 2-year field trials of beehive fences on 34 farms in
Kenya, demonstrating how effective this method is in deterring
Funding for research: Grants in the region of £300,000 have been
received for this work from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund,
ESRC/NERC, the St Andrews Prize for the Environment, The Future for Nature
Award, the Rufford Foundation and a number of smaller trusts and
Details of the impact
From 2010, following the successful University of Oxford field trials,
farmers and wildlife managers in Kenya and other parts of Africa have been
quick to show interest in this innovative but simple idea which provides a
practical solution to an Africa-wide problem. Building on field trials in
several countries, beehive fences have been implemented widely across
swathes of Southern and Eastern Africa. The field trials developed a model
of how to build an effective beehive fence using low-tech, straightforward
methods and materials that can be obtained locally; the fence is easy both
to maintain and to mend in the event of damage by elephants. Low-income
farmers benefit from better crop production through reduced damage from
raids, thus improving their own food security and helping to provide
surpluses that they can sell. They also benefit from sales of
`elephant-friendly' honey and other bee products such as beeswax candles;
sales of this kind can offset the costs of building a fence. There is also
some evidence that bees may help to improve crop yield through increased
pollination. Bees are kept in many parts of Africa, so the necessary
beekeeping expertise is readily available. Dr Lucy King, now working for
`Save the Elephants', has written a comprehensive Beehive Fence
Construction Manual which has been in production since July 2011 and
is freely available for download from the project website7. The
manual is crucial for promoting the idea of using beehive fences and,
because it is free, the beehive fence concept has been taken up, often
spontaneously, in several African countries. The following examples
provide evidence of the impact across the continent.
Kenya. The influential Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) has been
particularly interested in adopting the beehive fence idea, and it has
influenced their long-term planning. The successful Kenyan trials led
directly to the adoption of beehive fences being included in the 2012-2022
Conservation and Management Strategy for the Elephant in Kenya8.
This publication outlined the first comprehensive, independent, strategy
for elephant conservation for Kenya for two decades, and was endorsed by
the United Nations Environment Programme. Beehive fences are listed as a
proactive mitigation strategy to help reduce human-elephant conflict,
requiring on-going action from KWS, communities, landowners, and
researchers. Many photos from the beehive fence project appear in the
document, also indicating how highly regarded it is by the KWS. There are
now at least 29 farms in three districts in Kenya using the fences.
Elephants are extremely destructive to property as well as to crops; raids
often happen at night while families are sleeping in the same hut as the
crops they have harvested, leading to a high risk of being trampled when
the elephant knocks down the building. A 2010 account from a farmer near
Tsavo West National Park gives a description of the trauma caused by raids
and also confirms that the part of his farm that has a beehive fence is
the only area that elephants will not enter9.
Botswana. In Botswana, the World Bank has made a donation through
the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to the Northern Botswana
Human-Wildlife Co-Existence Project run by the Government's
Department for Wildlife and National Parks10. Within this five
year programme, a budget of US $90,000 has been set aside to test beehive
fences as one human-elephant conflict mitigation strategy for 40 farmers
living with elephants in three districts. Dr King provided training for
all three districts at the end of 2012 and at least half the proposed
fences have already been built. The project has required, and obtained,
cooperation between the two different government departments responsible
for agriculture and wildlife.
Tanzania. In Tanzania, beehive fences are used in at least three
localities. UNESCO has funded a project in the Udzungwa Mountains, in
response to increased human-elephant conflict and a rise in elephant
deaths11. On another site in the Western Serengeti, one
subsistence farmer reports that in 2013 he achieved his first proper
surplus for 18 years as a result of the beehive fence built around his
farm. He is using the profits to build a brick house to replace his
traditional grass-covered hut, and aims to transform his subsistence
farming to business farming12.
Mozambique and Uganda. The simplicity of the beehive fence design
lends itself to local innovation and adaptation; in Mozambique, the Niassa
Carnivore Project have redesigned the fence to use rope made from old
tyres because wire is locally prone to theft for hunting snares. In an
area of very high risk for elephant raids, two farms protected by fences
have experienced only one raid in 2013, in contrast to 32 successful raids
on six neighbouring farms13. In Uganda, a well-established
beekeeping project, Malaika Honey, is supporting local farmers to build
beehive fences and also training them in beekeeping skills14.
Farmers who live on the edge of the Ugandan Queen Elizabeth National Park
have suffered from serious crop-raiding by elephants; one farmer is quoted
as saying that after a series of raids `we had nothing to eat and nothing
to sell — they ate or destroyed all we had'. Installing beehive fences is
at an early stage but has already made a major difference to a number of
farms that have built them.
The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund has funded Dr King's work since
2008; their Conservation Programs Manager confirms that throughout the
funding period they `have seen this project grow and expand, creating
tangible conservation impacts that benefit both communities and wildlife,
with numerous high-profile publications and communications as a result of
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Beehive Fence. http://www.elephantsandbees.com/research_project/Beehive_Fence.html
Online version of the Beehive Fence Construction Manual.
- Kenya Wildlife Service. Kenya launches 10-year National Elephant
Strategy (2012). Available from:
Launch of the KWS Elephant Strategy Document (download link
at bottom of page), beehive fences are featured within Action Plan
4.2 on page 50.
- Letter from a farmer in Tsavo West National Park, Kenya (held on
file), confirming improvements to farming and safety since
installing a beehive fence.
- The World Bank. Projects: Northern Botswana Human Wildlife Coexistence
Project Report, 2009. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2009/08/11008295/botswana-northern-botswana-human-wildlife-coexistence-project
Details of the World Bank GEF project in Botswana; the report
lists beehive fences under Component 2 on page 2.
- UNESCO. World Heritage Centre: Human-Elephant Conflict, May 10 2011.
Details of the UNESCO scheme to use beehive fences in conjunction
with chilli, another elephant deterrent.
- Email and report from the Director of the Serengeti Development,
Research and Environmental Conservation Centre (SEDEREC) (held on file),
confirming the benefits to local farmers of beehive fences.
- Niassa Carnivore Project Beehive Fence project report, April 2013
(held on file), confirming local adaptation of fence construction
to avoid the use of wire, and the reduction in elephant raids since
- Jones P. Western Uganda: crop-raiding elephants call for plan bee. The
Guardian [Internet]. 6 Jun 2012. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/jun/06/western-uganda-crop-raiding-elephants-bees
Guardian report on successful beehive fence work in Uganda.
- Letter from the Conservation Programs Manager at the Disney Worldwide
Conservation Fund (held on file) confirming their positive view
of the beehive fence work and continued funding.