Bees keeping errant elephants away from farm fields

Peasants living near wildlife conservancies are mixing crop and bee farming to fend off errant elephants destroying their produce.

The farmers are taking advantage of elephants fearing stinging bees; they have strategically placed hives around their farms as security.

Taita-Taveta County's 57-year-old Kieti Nguli had an impressive harvest in 2015, after securing his one-acre cassava farm with six beehives.

From his one acre, which had about 3,000 sticks of cassava, Nguli realised about 3,500 kgs, a return he terms a landmark harvest.

Apart from the honey he is harvesting, the bees have saved this Taveta Sub-county farmer lots of days and nights which he spent watching over his field with his sons.

Rude elephants

Elephants from Kenya's Tsavo National Park and Tanzania's Serengeti National Park have been trampling over his farm and for years.

He had watched helplessly or ran away with his two sons whenever a large herd of the stray 'beasts' strolled into his plantation. Despite having large tracks of land, he never saw the need of cultivation more land as it would be feed for these elephants.

“We have been lighting fires and beating drums to scare the elephants away. Sometimes they are rude. And with time they get used to these old tactics. But 2015 was a good year for me because the small bees kept these hungry gigantic away for the whole season,” he said.

Nguli says beehives are better alternatives to poisoning or arrow-shooting; the country needs these animals to earn foreign exchange in tourism.

Human wildlife conflict is common, more-so in the Tsavo East and West where farmers are bordering Kenya's biggest animal sanctuary.

The magic small soldiers

Nguli says a buzz from a swarm of bees drives elephant scampering for safety. Farmers who have adopted the beehives no longer require Kenya Wild-life Service (KWS) rangers, who in many a time arrive late.

“Elephant raids have been fatal. KWS usually respond slowly to distress calls. But the small bee soldiers have kept my cassava farm secure," he said.

Elephants are herbivores, which can smell maturing maize, tomatoes, cassava, among other crops miles away.

Taita-Taveta being semi-arid, Mr Nguli says, the wild animals destroy the little that drought has left whenever vegetation in the parks is dismal.

How he does it

The farmer connected the beehives on the perimeter with wires. As the animals approach the firm, they push against the wires, which will shake the suspended beehives.

The small soldiers will ooze out and their buzzing sound will drive the elephants away.

A two-year study on 17 farms by scientists from United Kingdom's Oxford University found in 32 cases, only one bull elephant went through the wires.

Elephants have thick skins. But bees sting softer skin parts like near the eyes.

The report, which was published in the African journal of Ecology after the study in the area, says the tactic is 97 per cent effective.

Nguli wants plant to increase land for cultivation and capture honey market in his Taveta town this year.

Nguli has thatched the beehives with grass to maintain low temperatures. Strong sunlight melts the waxy honeycombs; this would drive the bees away.