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Farmers in Kenya are using bees to keep hungry elephants from decimating their crops

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Humans rely on bees to pollinate all sorts of plants, but in Kenya, bees are being used to protect against elephant crop-raids.

Kenyan folklore says that elephants are actually scared of bees, but it was professor Fritz Vollrath and Iain Douglas-Hamilton -- the chairman and director of Save the Elephants, respectively -- who used scientific evidence to prove this to be true.

The pair discovered this by monitoring trees with beehives and from their observations, they found that the trees with hives were not being damaged by elephants.

When Dr. Lucy King, the leader of the Elephants and Bees Project, came on board, she started looking at how elephants react to bees. King said she was hoping to use what researchers know about how bees and elephants interact to protect small-scale farms from elephant crop-raids.

"They can actually destroy an entire acre of crops in a night."
Dr. Lucy King

Human-elephant conflict has become a serious issue in Kenya as more and more people continue to settle along elephant migration corridors. When elephants leave national parks and come across farms, they often cause mayhem.

"They can actually destroy an entire acre of crops in a night," King explained. "For these very poor, rural farmers, this can be completely devastating and it can remove their entire income for that season."

When that happens, King said farmers are often forced into poaching or snaring for bush meat to provide for their families.

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King and her team found that putting up a fence and placing beehives along it acts as a natural elephant deterrent.

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“By interlinking beehives around a farm, we had to create a situation where if the elephants tried to push through, it would disturb the beehive, release the bees and the elephants would be scared away," she said.

In one community where the Elephants and Bees Project has been testing the beehive fences, the human-elephant conflict has been reduced by 80 percent. That means that out of 100 elephants that approach a farm, 80 will be stopped by the beehive fences, King added.

“This stops farmers from throwing spears at them, throwing stones, throwing fire, even shooting at the elephants. It’s a natural kind of way to keep the two apart," she said.

In the last seven years, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that more than 200 people have been killed as a result of human-elephant conflict in Kenya. On top of that, during the last 100 years African elephant populations have declined from 3 to 5 million to around 470,000 to 690,000.

So for those on both sides of the fence, reducing human-elephant conflict is a step in the right direction.

Installing a 330-foot fence can cost as little at $50, King added. The donated fences can last 10 to 15 years and after they are installed, the farmer takes complete ownership.

"They are in charge of the maintenance, all of the work behind it and then we offer to buy the honey back from them," King said. "So this is a win-win for the farmer."

The Elephants and Bees Project also has downloadable instructions so people can make the fences on their own.

Currently, there are around 11 countries in Africa and four in Asia testing the beehive fences. King said that because there are different bee species in different parts of Africa and Asia, the fences aren't guaranteed to work.

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"Even if it’s not 100 percent effective, even if it’s only 50 percent effective, the fact that we’re supporting honey bee populations is also critical," King said.

As for the future, King said she's is working to raise money for a mobile Elephants and Bees unit.

"This is going to be a fully equipped vehicle that we can take my very experienced team into new communities and do training, probably over a period of four or five days," she said.

King said she hopes to have the unit up and running by April of 2018.

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