Buzzing Bees Drive Off Mighty Elephants Elephants trample crops in Kenya, destroying the livelihood of many farmers. Now research says bees may be able to scare the pachyderms away. Zoologist Lucky King talks about the novel solution she's working on — creating a sound-barrier of bees.
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Buzzing Bees Drive Off Mighty Elephants

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Buzzing Bees Drive Off Mighty Elephants

Buzzing Bees Drive Off Mighty Elephants

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Back now with DAY TO DAY.

By cartoon myth, elephants are scared of mice. Now an Oxford University researcher says bees actually provoke pachyderm pandemonium. Lucy King is a zoologist who studied in Africa in Kenya, trying to keep elephants from trampling farmers' crops. She joins us now from Nairobi.

Lucy King, welcome to the program.

And whatever made you think that elephants might be scared of bees?

Ms. LUCY KING (Zoologist, Oxford University): It's interesting. We've been looking at this idea for a few years now, and it all stems from a study, which my co-authors - Iain Douglas Hamilton and Fritz Vollrath - did a few years ago. And they discovered that trees with beehives in them were not being damaged by elephants. But, of course, it's very hard to get live African bees into the path of elephants, so we decided to record the sound and take the sound to the elephants to see if there was anything there worth studying. And what we saw was incredibly dramatic.

CHADWICK: So what you did was get - record the sounds of these bees and then play them back from loud speakers near where the elephants were. And what happened?

Ms. KING: We actually fitted a wireless speaker into the fake tree trunk that we made, and we managed to get that within about 10 meters of the elephant before driving off and filming from a distance.

(Soundbite of bees)

Ms. KING: And when we first played the bee sounds, the elephants stopped immediately what they were doing, turned around to the speaker, and they started turning their heads from side to side with their ears out, their trunks up, trying to smell and trying to work out what was going on, where the sound was coming from. And then one of them would usually trigger a retreat, causing the whole of the herd to either run or walk very fast away in the opposite direction.

CHADWICK: We think of elephant hide as being almost impenetrable to anything. How was it that a bee could hurt an elephant?

Ms. KING: No. A bee could not sting an elephant through its skin, but having spoken to a lot of local people in our area, they tell us stories of bees being attracted to elephant eyes, and that must be very painful to be stung around the eye. But I think the key thing is that elephants forage up in trees by breaking branches and stripping leaves. And I think this triggers a hive sometimes to be smashed open, and they get bees up their trunk, which must be horrendous. And the elephant's going berserk trying to...

CHADWICK: That would hurt.

Ms. KING: ...swing their trunk around, trying to get it out.

CHADWICK: Well, tell me what do you think the results of this research might be? These farmers find that their crops are trampled by elephants, and they don't like it. They shoot the elephants. So maybe you could surround a crop with speakers. But sooner or later, they'd figure out that these were just speakers, not real bees, wouldn't they?

Ms. KING: You're absolutely correct there. And I'm doing an experiment right now - I'm just in the middle of it - to test that habituation theory, because elephants are highly intelligent. And without a painful stimuli after the bee sound, I think they would very quickly get used to that sound and start to come back. So what our results really are showing us is that it's a way to understand the behavior. And now what we want to do is try and use live beehives around field of crops to see if it has the same effect as the sound, which we think it will be.

CHADWICK: Of course, the problem there is that these bees, they'd be as happy stinging farmers as they would be stinging elephants.

Ms. KING: Yes. Unfortunately, that's true. And I - believe me, I've been stung a few times, so I know it's really not fun at all. What I've discovered is that elephants, generally, they invade people's farms from one direction, so they'll come from a forest reserve or a game park or an area where they feel safe, and they'll come into the Samburu from one direction and then leave again. And so we're looking at perhaps just fortifying one side of someone's farm with bees and beehives, and hopefully, you know, the further away from the house and the children, the better.

CHADWICK: Lucy King is a zoologist who studied at Oxford University. She's worked at the Samburu Game Reserve in northern Kenya, studying bees and elephants. She speaks with us today from Kenya. Lucy, thank you.

Ms. KING: Thank you.

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