Halloween at the Walt Disney World Resort

Wildlife Wednesdays: Disney’s Animal Kingdom Researchers Study Elephant Behavior Around Bees

posted on March 12th, 2014 by Joseph Soltis, Ph.D., Research Scientist, Disney’s Animal Programs


Did you ever warn someone about a sudden danger, saying: “Watch out for that hole in the ground!” or “Watch out for that falling rock!” Upon hearing such things, people know what to do, for example, stop right away to avoid stepping in the hole, or get out of the way to avoid getting hit by the rock. Well, it turns out African elephants do the same thing.

As you read this, I am just arriving in Africa to participate in ongoing conservation work with Dr. Lucy King and other colleagues from Save the Elephants and Oxford University who are helping to protect elephants in Northern Kenya. In an earlier Disney Parks Blog post, we shared that we are getting help in our conservation work from an unlikely source: bees.

It may be surprising, but elephants are afraid of bees. With their thick skin, a few bee stings might not bother them most of the time, but even elephants have sensitive parts (think inside the trunk and ears), so even tiny bees can be a threat to elephants. When elephants hear the sounds of honeybees they run away and shake their heads, which flaps their big ears around (to knock bees away). They also make a special “rumble” sound that warns other elephants about the bees. If other elephants hear that special rumble, they run away and shake their heads too.

Recently, through additional research, we found out that elephants have a separate alarm rumble for people. When they hear the voices of people from a local tribe, they run away, but they don’t shake their heads the way they do in response to bees. When researchers play this rumble to other elephants, they also run away, and look around for a long time wondering where the people are, but they do not shake their heads. Take a look at this video to see an elephant family’s reaction when they hear the voices of a local tribe.

So elephants have at least two specific alarm calls: one for bees and one for humans. Interestingly, the difference between the alarm calls for bees and humans is just like the difference in vowel sounds in human language, which we know can change the meaning of words (think of “boo” and “bee”). It’s possible that simple fear and running causes the rumbles to be different, but it could also be that elephants are purposefully changing their rumbles to communicate to other elephants, similar to the way people use words.

This research is helping to save elephants in the wild. Armed with the knowledge that elephants are afraid of bees, Save the Elephants, with support from Disney, has helped many communities in Kenya build “beehive fences” that stop elephants from raiding the farms of local farmers. In this way, people can defend their farms without hurting elephants, and they get honey too.

Learning more about how elephants react to threats such as bees and humans will help us design strategies to reduce human-elephant conflict and protect people and elephants.

Did you know?

  • Guests can learn more about the elephants and bees conservation project, and many other conservation projects supported by Disney, when they visit Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
  • The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF) has supported Save the Elephants and its elephants and bees project since 2000. Since its inception, the DWCF has provided nearly $1 million in funding to protect African elephants.
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Filed: Disney's Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World Resort

6 Comments

1

Ann on March 12th, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Loved the elephants and bees and human study! What a discovery to find out about simple clues pointing to a complex problem of survival. Animals seem to have the simple answers of living, if only we humans would listen to the animals. Thank you for this story.

2

Jessica on March 12th, 2014 at 3:55 pm

That’s so interesting! Not to mention that as I was watching them walk away, I was reminded so much of the Jungle Book and how well the animators got the elephants movement correct in the film. Just their feet and the way that they walk and stomp around is almost identical to the film!

Love the Wildlife Wednesdays. Keep it up and make sure to stay safe out there!

3

Chandra from WA on March 13th, 2014 at 8:33 am

Thank you for posting this. I shared this with my 6 year old son who loves learning about Elephants, as they are his favorite animal in the world. He found this very interesting and he particularly enjoyed seeing the video. Thank you for sharing this and teaching my son and me something new.

4

Alison from CA on March 13th, 2014 at 9:43 am

You refer to it as a “win-win”, and I would say it’s a “win-win-win”… bees are increasingly threatened on the planet, and providing a protected home and supply of nectar for these little critters may help their survival as well! Really neat story; keep it up!

5

Mark on April 9th, 2014 at 8:43 am

We learned about some of this during our Wild Africa Trek (AK) adventure back in March. One of our guides was involved with some of this from the states side. Amazing that such a large animal can be steered away by a small insect. The adventure was awesome.

6

Stephanie on April 23rd, 2014 at 12:02 pm

This is fascinating! Thank you for making such a positive difference in the lives of these animals and so many others! And thank you for sharing this terrific work. I hope it helps inspire children to study science so they also can make a difference in the future! It’s truly inspiring!

6 Comments