Elephants and humans compete for space and resources in many African rural areas. As head of the Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program at Save the Elephants (STE), zoologist Dr. Lucy King has devised a unique and holistic approach to the problem that saves the lives of elephants and improves the livelihoods of lower-income communities. All she uses are honeybees and some string.
Enamored with elephants
Ever since King can remember, African elephants have filled her with a sense of wonder. Growing up in Southern Africa and as the daughter of two teachers, her summers were filled with family camping trips to the savannah, where she would hear the massive creatures stomping softly near her tent.
She was inspired by their size, role in the ecosystem, and close-knit societies. As the largest land mammal alive today, elephants can weigh up to seven tons, eat up to 400 kilograms (882 lbs) of food daily, and disperse vital plant seeds across thousands of acres.
At the forefront of their herds is the matriarch. The oldest female elephant leads the group to find food, water, and security. She also seems to have memorized a map of the savannah, as year after year has been observed navigating the same route and remembering the safest places to cross rivers.
The pachyderm problem
The only element that stood out like a sore thumb to King on her trips were electric fences. Meant to protect elephants from entering human developments and farms, they cut off the flow of the natural landscape and weren’t that effective at keeping the enormous pachyderms out.
Fast forward many years later, King is still in awe of elephants and living in a tent, this time in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, studying for her Ph.D. in Animal Behavior. As she observes the complexities of elephant societies, there is a sharp increase in human-elephant conflict.
While many locals hold the same reverence for elephants as King, they simply cannot put up with elephants breaking into their water tanks, food stores, and sometimes even ripping the roofs off their homes. Most people affected by elephants' trespassing are already on the borderline of poverty.
Research inspired by locals
Rather than seeking help from outside entities or investing more in electric fences, King spoke to rural pastoralists in northern Kenya with generations of knowledge about wildlife on the savannah. From these talks, she learned elephants did not feed on trees that had wild beehives in them.
As elephants forage on trees, they break branches, and if, in the process, they open a wild beehive, the bees attack. While it is nearly impossible for elephants to get stung through their thick skin, bees seem to know to sting them around the eyes, behind the ears, and even up the trunk.
Just as the elephant matriarch remembers which path to follow every year, she also recalls which trees have beehives and keeps her herd away from them. King found in her research that even the mere sound of bees buzzing playing over a loudspeaker makes elephants leave an area.
Honeybees to the rescue
Through these studies, King invented a beehive fence. To protect one acre of farmland, 12 beehives and 12 dummy hives are placed alternately around crops connected by mere string. If an elephant tries to enter the plot, the line will tug on all the hives, alerting the bees.
With this simple design, 80% of elephants are now kept outside the boundaries of farms with beehive fences. Not only that, but the bees help pollinate the fields, increasing yields, and the farmers can have extra income by selling honey.
As the STE’s Elephants and Bees Project Leader, King has spread her work to over 60 human-elephant conflict sites across 19 countries in Africa and Asia. She also works to empower local women by helping them plant sisal, also known as jute, which can be turned into fiber to create products to sell.
For her efforts, King received the Thesis Award in 2011 from the United Nations Environment Program’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species. Additionally, she won The Future for Nature Award, The St Andrews Prize for the Environment, and gave a Ted Talk about her research.
In early 2022, King was featured in the Rebel Girls Climate Warriors book. Just as she was a little girl sleeping to the sound of elephants in the savannah, children all around the world can listen to her story at bedtime and close their eyes, feeling empowered to make a difference too.