The Buzz about Elephants and Bees

An elephant family rests under a tree in the hot midday heat. Situations like this were perfect for the playback experiments.

by SdS

In October 2007 Lucy King and colleagues first made a splash by reporting that African elephants seemed to be rather put off by bees.  I was still in Sri Lanka during my big “data collection year” as a graduate student, trying to figure out the social relationships among Asian elephants and recording vocalizations whenever I got a chance. Lucy’s first paper was a curiosity, but then three years later she followed it up with the even more intriguing finding that African elephants even produce alarm calls specific to bees. This got the attention of my advisor at Penn, Dorothy Cheney, who having expended considerable time thinking about such things as monkey alarm calls, dropped me a one-liner: “Have you seen this?”

That was how Lucy’s work work first made it on my radar.  It eventually gave rise to the Elephants and Bees Project of Save The Elephants, where Lucy and her team have been applying this knowledge to design their now-famous bee-hive fences as a deterrent against elephant crop raiding.  Naturally, the question was immediately asked: could the same work in Asia?

For a while the question floated around unanswered. But that didn’t stop people in Asia from jumping in and trying anyway – either by starting up amateur bee-keeping projects or following the instructions available online to construct their own fences.  I kept getting asked about it at public gatherings and kept giving the same reply – “It hasn’t been tested yet.”

As it happened, Lucy had been asked this a lot as well. So when Lucy and I met at a conference a few years later, we were mutually interested in finding an answer. Together we hatched a plan – before the fences themselves could be tried, we needed to know if the elephants would react at all. While there are plenty of aggressive bees and wasps out there, that wasn’t the point. In order to be candidates for fencing, the species had to be manageable. The only Asian honeybee species suitable for household honey production was the ones people were already working with, Apis cerana indica. But they had a reputation for being more docile than the African variety, and given that Asian elephants have different feeding preferences from their African counterparts as well, it wasn’t at all obvious how they’d react.

After scouting out the situation in Sri Lanka, Lucy arrived in Udawalawe in 2014 ready launch. While there were plenty of elephants about, and our individual-IDs made it easy to keep track of who the playbacks were conducted to, one challenge was that the elephants always had to be close enough to the road for the experiment to be performed at a consistent distance. After tinkering with the acoustics, a reasonable method was devised. With help from UWERP and then-graduate student Mickey Pardo, Lucy conducted a series of playback experiments with a similar set-up as what had been used in Kenya (read her original post here).

From the video archives:

Their responses were rather more measured than that of their African cousins.  They hesitated at first to respond, reacting just slightly more quickly to the sound of bees than to the sound of white noise generated by a waterfall. That contrast was a ‘control’ to ensure they weren’t simply reacting to hearing a random strange sound they weren’t used to. But we could see they did clearly differentiate between the two, on average moving further away in response to the bee sounds and also vocalizing more. They also showed more investigative or reassurance behavior such as touching each other in the mouth. But they certainly didn’t run away in fear, as African elephants did. Maybe it was because the bees didn’t pose as much of a threat, or maybe Asian elephants simply didn’t have as much experience disturbing bees nesting in tree cavities because of their preference for grazing over browsing. Interestingly, all three bulls in the study showed a tendency to move away. Since bulls are more frequently (if not exclusively) implicated in crop raiding in Sri Lanka, this was a good sign.

So what does this mean?  Well, the answer to the question “Are Asian elephants bothered by Asian honey bees?” is a clear “Yes.”

But can this translate into a solution for HEC, namely bee-fences? That is to be seen. Experiments are being conducted elsewhere in Sri Lanka and other countries to answer that question. For the fences to work, not only do the bees have to be effective at driving off elephants, but the local environment has to capable of supporting multiple large colonies of bees. That means lots of flowers, and flowering times must agree with cultivation calendars. A recent study in the central African country of Gabon found that African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are put off from fruit trees by the presence of the local honey bee (Apis mellifera adansonii) but there is a cost to honey production as bees expend energy doing so. As always, this solution is only one piece of the bigger ecological puzzle.

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Sumedha’s Epic Musth

Sumedha shows all signs of musth as he consorts with Indika (Sandamali) in 2011, which include secretions from the temporal glands on the sides of his head and urine dribbling.

Of all the iconic tuskers that have passed through Udawalawe over the years, Sumedha is the one I’ve known longest. All tuskers are distinctive, because they’re so rare in Udawalawe, but Sumedha additionally had a nice big hole in his left ear and an awkward  tail with no hair. He wasn’t as regal as my beloved Raja, nor as old and wise as the Kalthota tusker, both of whom would have been easily dominant over him in the early years. But he was younger than either of them, and built like a tank. So if he survived, eventually his time would come. Continue reading

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Fencing the conflict

by DJ and USW

A female elephant was seen on the corridor - note the gut shot wounds

A female elephant was seen on the corridor – note the raised bumps on the skin, which are suspected to be old gunshot wounds.

Uda Walawe elephants have access to nearby protected areas (managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation) through two separate “corridors;” Dahayyagala, connecting the park to the proposed Bogahapattiya Sanctuary on the northern boundary and Wetahirakanda, connecting it to Lunugamwehera National Park on the eastern border. Elephants can be found outside the park pretty much all along the border except for the southern section. The identified corridors, however, are too narrow at some places (500-1000m). Corridor boundary is marked by electric fencing. The existing fences sometimes run too close to human settlements and at other times they run through forested habitats leaving elephant needs (like water holes) outside the corridor. In such cases, those who maintain electric fences have to walk into elephant habitats for a few kilometres daily and that doesn’t sound practical (as a result, some parts of the fence easily go non-functional).  Given the inefficiency of fenced boundaries and escalating human elephant conflict in the area, the Department has taken a very timely decision to re-define corridors and upgrading electric fences to better serve both humans and elephants. The plan is that eventually the corridors will be broadened while the existing fences will be lengthened and strengthened. Continue reading

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Changing Shades of Green

by DJ and USW


Picture taken in 2011 shows scattered trees and grass species in between

If your garden is left unattended it grows wild after several seasons. Eventually, there will be a mini-forest of a few species carefully chosen by a natural process. This is an ecological succession. The same takes place in the wild. Once a habitat is disturbed but then left undisturbed by humans, it goes through a series of structural changes in the vegetation with time. Continue reading

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Evolving A More Egalitarian Elephant


A young female named Right Hole puts her trunk over the head and back of another female of similar age with the ID [458]. The two are from different social groups, though they know each other.

Elephants are commonly thought to live in matriarchal societies which rely on the strong leadership and wisdom of elders, with strong age-based dominance hierarchies. Our new study in the journal Behavioral Ecology overturns this view, finding that in fact Asian elephants, unlike African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), do not exhibit clear dominance hierarchies or matriarchal “leadership” [1]. Continue reading

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Collateral Damage Part 2 – Bycatch

By DJ & SdS


In the fishing industry, the term “bycatch” refers to species that are entrapped in fishing nets that are not the intended target species.  Such victims, many of whom may die and simply be discarded overboard, represent a terrible waste of life.

Well, in Uda Walawe the bycatch this time was an elephant. Continue reading

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Rambo, the Romeo

Guest post by Christin Minge

Rambo at his habitual location.

Rambo at his habitual location.

Male Asian elephants live rich social lives with a complex dynamic structure. They are often seen as solitary, but also frequently associate and interact with other males or female-groups depending on a variety of interconnecting factors, including life history, male dominance and alternative mating strategies, male and female sexual states and a complex feedback loop of social relationships with other elephants – just to name a few (Chelliah and Sukumar, 2013; 2015). The magnitude and consequences of sociality in male elephants are far from being explored yet, which is an emerging area of interest for the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project. Simply speaking, mature males are expected to associate and interact with female-groups more during their reproductively active periods and are more solitary or in male-male associations during reproductively inactive periods. Continue reading

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Collateral Damage Part 1 – Snares

By DJ & SdS

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

A snare is a hunting device resembling a wire noose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to trap wild animals. In Sri Lanka, such poached bushmeat consists of wild boar, porcupine and lesser members of the deer family and is mostly locally consumed. Hunting non-protected species (wild boar and porcupine, which are considered as vermin) is not illegal but other species like deer are protected by the local Fauna and Flora Ordinance.

Locals say snare traps are often meant for wild boars. Unfortunately, these traps do not discriminate, they also make victims of species like leopard and elephant. During the last five years, more than ninety percent of the leopard deaths occurred in hill country, Sri Lanka was due to physical injuries of ensnaring. Our observations in Uda Walawe and Minneriya National Parks suggest that it is usually less-experienced juvenile elephants are the victims of snare traps, though adults may sometimes show signs of old wounds. Trunk injuries show the animals are vulnerable even during grazing, not just while walking. Perhaps calves’ natural curiosity makes them especially vulnerable. Continue reading

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Imagining Human-Elephant Coexistence on World Elephant Day

by DJ & SdS

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

Human-wild elephant interactions usually bring negative outcomes. The friction stems from the never ending competition of resources, mainly land. A conflict is defined as a state of mind in which an individual experiences a clash of opposing feelings. When the two species fail to share common resources, a conflict naturally takes place.The discussion must invariably focus on those who live alongside elephants. Their relationships with wild elephants vary. While some think total rejection is the answer, others considers having elephants around is fine as long as they don’t disturb their basic lifestyle.

Is human-elephant coexistence ever possible? Continue reading

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Wildlife officers see what “evidence” means.

By DJ & SdS

Workshop participants

Officers from the DWC (middle and back rows) along with workshop facilitators (front row).

Decision making in wildlife management is always challenging; some may bias towards wildlife and others towards human needs. This conflict can be resolved only by making decisions based on facts or scientific data, which constitute a form of “evidence.” Thus, evidence-based decision making is considered the best approach to managing wildlife and habitats around the world. The opposite of this is management based on emotion, political agendas, or even expert opinion (which can often be wrong). Continue reading

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