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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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Wildlife Wednesdays: Heard the Buzz? Disney’s Animal Kingdom Scientists, Educators are Helping People and Elephants, with an Assist from an Unlikely Source—Bees

posted on June 13th, 2012 by Joseph Soltis, Ph.D., Research Scientist, Disney’s Animal Programs

I’m excited to be a part of a special conservation program in Kenya, where Disney scientists and educators are partnering with the conservation group Save the Elephants to protect elephants and help people, with assistance from an unlikely source: bees.

It all started a number of years ago with the idea that elephants may be afraid of bees, and the conception of the “beehive fence,” which could be a useful tool to stop crop-raiding elephants.

Together with Save the Elephants, we conducted a series of audio playback experiments, showing that elephants are indeed afraid of bees, and that the elephants produce a special alarm call which warns nearby elephants of the danger. Although elephants’ skin is pretty thick, they also have sensitive parts that bees can sting, such as the ears and eyes and inside their trunks, so there is nothing the elephants can do but run away.

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Since then, Save the Elephants has constructed beehive fences that have successfully deterred crop-raiding elephants. Not only that, the local farmers can harvest honey and consume or sell it at local markets. So it’s a win-win situation for elephants and human families. A fellow scientist here at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Anne Savage, shared some information on this project on the Disney Parks Blog a couple of years ago, and the project has been progressing, so I wanted to provide an update for my first blog post.

We are continuing to work to reduce human conflict with crop-raiding elephants by offering non-violent alternatives to stop the elephants from destroying people’s farms. At the same time, we’re helping children and families form a stronger connection to wildlife. In this way, we can ensure a future for people and elephants in northern Kenya.

Recently, we have been stepping up our efforts in the area of education, thanks to the partnership of the Disney’s Animal Programs Education Team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This work includes integrating conservation messages into the local school curriculum, and engaging children in outdoor activities that teach methods to reduce conflict with wildlife.

Of course, children love to play, and playing is a fantastic way to learn. So in addition to benefiting from classroom offerings, kids are learning about the importance of conservation by playing a variety of education-based games. One of these is the endangered species game — a twist on “musical chairs.” In the game, each child gets to be a different animal. As threats to wildlife increase, there are fewer and fewer hoops for the kids to jump into — but as people develop ways to reduce those threats, such as building beehive fences, the number of hoops increases. The kids have a great time and learn that they have the power to help wildlife.

The educational program is part of a broader effort to transform the community from an elephant poaching hotspot to a conservation conservancy. This way, people both protect and benefit from the amazing wildlife — including the magnificent elephants — that shares their world.

The next time you visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom, be sure to stop by Conservation Station in Rafiki’s Planet Watch, where you might find me in the Wildlife Tracking Center and can certainly learn more about our elephant conservation work as well as many other projects.

Check out these posts to read more about Disney’s conservation efforts:

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