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.