JOHANNESBURG - Lore has it that elephants are afraid of mice, but scientists have now discovered elephants are truly afraid of bees - and the pachyderms even sound an alarm when they encounter them. 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 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 have also killed people, and they are then hunted down by park rangers.
The discovery that elephants emit low-frequency alarm calls around bees could help reduce these conflicts, said Lucy King, a researcher into animal behaviour.
Farmers could make "bee fences" by stringing up hives on poles around 10m apart, 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 they flee, emitting low rumblings inaudible to the human ear.
King's findings are based on two separate experiments, part of a project by Oxford University and Save the Elephants, in Kenya's Samburu park.