HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsHow bees can reduce human-elephant conflicts

How bees can reduce human-elephant conflicts

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guest column:Fidelicy Nyamukondiwa

Zimbabwe’s wildlife watchdog, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) reports that 60 people lost their lives and 50 were left nursing serious injuries as a result of human-wildlife conflicts from January 2020 to date.

ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo says the authority received close to 1 500 distress calls from communities during the year and nearly half of the fatalities were caused by stray elephants.

Disturbing isn’t it?

Well, bees could be the urgent, cheapest and most preservative solution for human-elephant conflicts (HEC).

HEC are not only problematic in Zimbabwe.

In a move that has been globally frowned upon by animal activists, the Namibian government recently advertised that it is selling 170 elephants.

Overpopulation and drought often cause jumbos to stray into nearby communities in search of food and water.

This results in massive crop and infrastructure destruction and trampling of humans.

Early this year, there was a proposal made in Parliament to introduce elephant contraceptives as a way of reducing the elephant population in Zimbabwe. Besides many other shortcomings, the use of birth control pills is not an solution to HEC.

A common but rather unpopular practice by ZimParks is tracking down and killing stray animals.

“The greatness of a country is judged from the way its animals are treated” Mahatma Ghandi once said. Retaliatory killing is poor wildlife management.

“To this end, the wildlife watchdog ought to embrace the use of tranquiliser darts in view of capturing stray animals alive.

An award-winning research conducted in Kenya by zoologist Dr Lucy King proves that bees can keep peace between humans and elephants.

Apparently, elephants are intimidated by the mere buzzing sound of bees. Considering that they have thick hides, one may wonder why the world’s largest land animal is so much afraid of the tiny bee.

Well, the bee goes for the soft-spot — the ears, eyes or the trunk.

It is not one sting that the elephant is afraid of.

When an African bee stings, it releases a pheromone.

A pheromone is a chemical substance produced by an animal which affects the behaviour or physiology of others of its species.

When one bee strikes, the pheromone elicits fellow bees to attack.

All triggered bees will go for the same soft-spot.

Now imagine hundreds of bees aggressively stinging one sensitive spot.

An elephant is one of the world’s most intelligent animals.

Because of its brilliant memory, it will never forget an area with bees.

Males leave their family groups when they reach puberty.

The oldest cow, known as the matriarch is the head of the family.

She nurtures the younger members of her family and alerts them of the no-go areas.

After Dr King learnt from the Samburu people of north-central Kenya that elephants are afraid of bees, she embarked on a research which was to become an award winner.

King recorded buzzing bee sounds from a wild bee hive.

Together with her research team, she went on to put wireless speakers on trees in an area where elephants usually rested. While one family was resting under a big tree, they played the buzzing recording via the speakers.

All family members sprang in terror upon hearing the buzz.

The experiment was repeated on 16 different families. Sixteen of the 17 tested families ran off within 10 and some within 80 seconds of hearing the buzzing sound.

The family that did not respond was young and it was assumed that perhaps none of the members had experienced a bee attack before.

In her own words, Dr King says: “Not only do they run away, but they dust themselves as they are running, as if to knock bees out of the air.

“And we placed infrasonic microphones around the elephants as we did these experiments.

“And it turns out they are communicating to each other in infrasonic rumbles to warn each other of the threat of bees and to stay away from the area.”

The research was first implemented in Kenya and it turned out to be a success. A beehive fence is built around farms on the most vulnerable frontline areas where humans and elephants usually compete for space.

The beehives are connected to each other with strong wires.

If an elephant bumps the wire, the hives are shaken, triggering bees to aggressively swarm and do the magic. As hinted earlier on, the elephant is an intelligent animal.

Once stung, it will relay the information to the other family members.

Twelve beehives and 12 dummy hives are used to fence one acre of farmland. The fake hives are painted yellow and hung in between the original hives.

The pattern is, therefore, one dummy hive after an original one.

This is a cost effective method which tricks elephants into thinking there are more beehives than there really are.

Farmers are encouraged to grow pollinator-friendly crops like sunflowers to boost their hives.

They are also encouraged to grow crops which elephants do not like to eat and these include chilli and ginger. In Mbire district and other parts of Zimbabwe, chillis have for some time been used as elephant repellents.

Growing pollinator-friendly crops strengthens the bees and in turn, the bees produce the most amazing honey. The positive health effects of honey cannot be overstated.

So bees are not only a solution to human-elephants conflicts, they are also a source of livelihood.

In 2017, bee farming reportedly transformed the lives of 98 families in the drought-prone and poverty-stricken area of Buhera.

The same year, it was revealed that Zimbabwe was producing approximately 70 000 litres of honey per year yet she had the capacity to produce 500 000 litres per year.

The rate at which precious human lives continue to be lost through HEC in Zimbabwe is worrisome.

The bee solution is a living success in Kenya. It is hoped that policy-makers will copy-paste the Kenyan version if human lives are to be urgently saved.

Farmers should also take it upon themselves to practise bee farming as a way of countering human-elephant conflicts.

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