Innovative beehive fences have helped a community in Kenya to successfully protect crops from elephants, according to research.Scientists found the hives to be a very effective barrier; elephants turned away from them in 97% of their attempted raids.
Conservationists suggest that elephants' natural fear of bees could settle ongoing conflicts.
The hives' honey also produced additional profits for farmers.
Over the past 20 years, elephant numbers in Kenya have grown to around 7,500 and the population boost is widely heralded as a conservation success story.
However, conflict between elephants and humans, especially farmers, is an ongoing problem.
Elephants frequently "raid" farms searching for food such as ripe tomatoes, potatoes and maize.
To protect their livelihoods, some farmers have resorted to extreme measures including poisoning and shooting elephants.
Previous research into natural deterrents showed that elephants avoided African honey bees.In 2009, experts from the University of Oxford, UK, and the charity Save the Elephants set up a trial project to test whether beehives could prevent conflict on farmland boundaries.
After two years of observations, the full results of the trial have now been published in the African Journal of Ecology.
"Finding a way to use live beehives was the next logical step in finding a socially and ecologically sensitive way of taking advantage of elephants' natural avoidance behaviour to bees to protect farmers' crops," said Dr Lucy King, the University of Oxford biologist who led the study.
"It was very exciting to see that our theoretical work has been converted into a practical application," she said.
AFRICAN BEE FACTS
- Bees cannot sting through elephant hide, but they can and do sting around elephants' eyes and inside trunks
- The bees in Kenya (Apis mellifera scutellata) are small with short tongues and swarm frequently
- African honey bees were crossed with European honey bees in South America and are known as "killer bees" because of their increased aggression
In 32 attempted raids over three crop seasons, only one bull elephant managed to penetrate the novel defences.The beehives were suspended on wires between posts with a flat thatched roof above to protect from the sun in the traditional Kenyan style.
The team created a boundaries for 17 farms, incorporating 170 beehives into 1,700m of fencing.
"The interlinked beehive fences not only stopped elephants from raiding our study farms but the farmers profited from selling honey to supplement their low incomes," Dr King explained.
"The honey production and consequent income has really incentivised the farmers to maintain the fences."
Conservationists now hope to roll out the scheme to other farming communities.