Hive Mind: When Phobia Helps Protect The Environment

Shelby Cohron,

Hannah Thomasy wrote my source article on 9/11/2019.

When I was a junior in college, I had a night class on Tuesdays and Thursdays and would return to my dorm via a shortcut between two buildings – until the night I saw a half dollar sized spider spinning a web in a bush. I am an arachnophobe, so much so that I literally couldn’t walk past the bush. I had to turn around and go back the way I had come and take the long way around to get home that night because just seeing the spider freaked me out that much. It’s this same reaction that elephants have to bees.

Yes, elephants are afraid of bees, and it’s something that could actually save their lives.

Bee swarms attack elephants by stinging their trunks and flying up their noses and in their mouths, since thick elephant hide makes stinging them anywhere else pointless. In much the same way I refused to walk past that bush, elephants will go out of their way to avoid beehives, and conservationists are taking advantage of this phobia to help prevent human-wildlife conflict in Africa and Asia.

Elephants can have a devastating impact on a farmer’s livelihood if they gain access to farmland, but the consequences for the elephants are far worse. Farmer have tried electric fences to keep elephants out of their fields, but they are expensive and difficult to maintain, leaving them no recourse (in their minds) but to kill the marauding herds before they lose their only source of income. The idea for beehive fences started in Kenya in the early 2000s when farmers noticed that elephants would avoid forests where large beehives were known to exist. Dr. Lucy King, a zoologist with Save the Elephants decided to experiment with beehive fences to see if they could be a viable resource in ending the human-wildlife conflict that plagues both African and Asian elephant populations. Her team placed beehives on posts a little over twenty feet apart and connected them with wires, the theory being that if an elephant tried to go between the posts, it would still disturb the bees enough when it hit the wire that it would be deterred. After the fence was built there was an almost 50% reduction in the number of elephant encroachments so in 2011, Save The Elephants branched out into more formal trials to prove this method helps.

Along with reducing human wildlife conflict, these beehives can help farmer increase crop yields, and the honey gives them another source of income, particularly helpful in parts of the world where drought is one of the biggest threats to a farmer’s existence. There is some concern about the efficacy of beehive fencing in Asia, as bees in that part of the world aren’t as aggressive as African bees, but this solution used in conjunction with other protective measures, gives conservationists a unique weapon in their human-wildlife conflict arsenal. And it makes me feel a little bit better about my arachnophobia, too.