- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2010

JOHANNESBURG | Eek, a bee!

Lore has it that elephants are afraid of mice, but scientists have now discovered that elephants are truly afraid of bees — and that the pachyderms even sound an alarm when they encounter them.

The researchers hope this discovery can help save farmers’ crops from elephants.

And they hope it will save elephants, too.

Conflict between humans and elephants in countries such as Kenya occur often. A single hungry elephant can wipe out a family’s crops overnight. Farmers will huddle by fires all night during the harvest season. When an elephant nears, the farmers spring up with flaming sticks while their children bang on pots and pans. Not all fields can be guarded, and sometimes the elephants aren’t frightened off.

Farmers sometimes kill elephants for raiding their crops. Rampaging elephants also have killed people, and then they are hunted down by park rangers.

The discovery that elephants emit low-frequency alarm calls around bees could help lessen these conflicts, said Lucy King, a researcher into animal behavior whose paper on elephants’ alarm calls was published in a journal of the Public Library of Science last week.

Farmers could make “bee fences” by stringing up hives on poles about 11 yards apart, Ms. King said. A strong wire connecting the poles would cause them to swing when an elephant walks into it, disturbing the bees. The swarm bothers elephants so much that they flee, emitting low rumblings inaudible to the human ear that warn other elephants nearby.

“It’s impossible to cover Africa in electric fences,” Ms. King said in an interview. “The infrastructure doesn’t exist in many places, and it would restrict animals’ movement. This could be a better way to direct elephants away from farmers’ crops.”

Ms. King’s findings are based on two separate experiments, part of a project by Oxford University and Save the Elephants. In the first, she played recorded bee sounds near elephants, causing them to flee. The researchers noticed that elephants distant from the sound also moved away, leading them to speculate the elephants were communicating an alarm below the range of human hearing.

For her second experiment, Ms. King hung ultrasensitive microphones from trees. She recorded elephant rumblings over a two-month experiment in Kenya’s Samburu park.

“We put the speaker in a bush quite away from the car. We didn’t want to get charged by mistake,” she said.

She then played the sounds back to elephants. When they heard the recorded rumblings, they moved away, confirming the researchers’ hunch about alarm calls.

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