The tiny bee has become a defender of farmers living next to Tsavo East National Park in Kenya against the marauding elephants that devour their crops.

The findings of a research unveiled on 21 February 2017 show that ‘beehive fences’ successfully defended 10 small-scale farms on the front line of elephant incursions from Kenya’s largest elephant population in Tsavo.

Over three and a half years, 253 elephants entered the farming area of Mwakoma village, usually when crops were ripening. Eighty per cent of the of the time, the elephants were turned away by the beehive fences, and the success has resulted in a rapid uptake of beehive fences by other farmers in the community.

Elephants are in peril across most of their African range. Poaching for ivory is an acute, high-profile issue, but incidents of conflict between humans and elephants are increasing. When elephants come raiding, small-scale farmers can lose the food that was to support their families for the season, and their revenge can be fatal.

‘Beehive fences’ are a novel solution that has proven to be astonishingly successful, as described in the new paper, published in the journal Conservation Biology. Elephants detest bees and will run away at just the sound of the angry buzzing emitted from a disturbed hive to avoid being stung around the sensitive eyes, mouth and trunk.

This novel and natural inter-species behaviour has been adapted to provide 10 farmers next to Tsavo East National Park with income-generating beehive fences that links one beehive to another around the outer side of their farms to keep the elephants at bay.

In the 3.5-year collaborative study conducted by Save the Elephants, Kenya Wildlife Service and Mwakoma Community, not only did the beehive fences keep 80 per cent of elephants out of the trial farms, but the guardian bees provided the farmer with pollination services for their crops. Additionally 228kg of delicious ‘Elephant-Friendly’ Honey was produced for sale generating over $3,300 in gross income.

The research was designed and led by Lucy King from Save the Elephants who has spent over 10 years exploring the use of honey bees as a natural deterrent for crop-raiding elephants.

“We had 253 elephants visit our ten beehive fence protected farms over a 3.5-year period and only 20 per cent of them managed to break the fence to access the crops,” said Dr King, “With 80 per cent of the elephants successfully turning away from the farms, the 10 pilot farmers have been so enthusiastic about the fences that a further 12 farmers from the community asked to join the project by the end of our trial.”

Over 24 farms are now using beehive fences in the Sagalla area and the beehive fence concept has spread to three other communities next to Tsavo East in the past 18 months.

“These results are very encouraging and will contribute to the ongoing conservation and management strategy for elephants in Kenya,” said Fredrick Lala of Kenya Wildlife Service who co-authored the paper.

Said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants: “The beehive fence is a natural, sweet solution to diminish conflict between man and elephants.”