Mammoth news: Bees help plants

What! That’s news?? Surely everybody knows that many plants are pollinated by bees? Hopefully, yes, but this item is not about that well-known plant-insect association. OK, but does it feature mammoths? No, but it does have an elephantine dimension.

Three elephants
Three African Bush Elephants in Serengeti. Photo: Ikiwaner / Wikipedia

Having laboured long and hard to plant and grow crops – to feed the family, and maybe have some surplus to sell to, or trade with, others – the last thing you need is for those plants to be trampled by … elephants. Yet, that is a major concern in parts of Africa (where the African elephant is an ever-present ‘threat’ to other life forms). A biocontrol method to ward off the elephants that’s having success in southern Africa is the humble bee.

Despite its apparent toughness and thickness, the elephant’s skin is rather sensitive to bee stings, and there is the real danger that a bee sting within the trunk could potentially lead to suffocation. So, elephants not only avoid bees (sensible animals that they are), but also the places where the bees buzz. Can this behaviour be exploited as a crop-damage-mitigation approach? Yes.

Experiments testing effectiveness of bees versus wire netting to deter elephant damage to marula trees (Sclerocarya birrea in an area near the Kruger National Park in South Africa concluded that the honeybee approach was a qualified success.* Which is arguably a triple bonus; if bees’ nests are located close to crops, elephants are kept away from them, there is the potential for a honey harvest for the farmer and his family (which might also be sold…), and pollination of those crops that the bees visit when they’re not engaged in pachyderm-bothering duties.** A sort of ‘wing’- win situation: Thank you, bees!

*Some of you may be thinking: Rather than use bees – which could sting humans – why not use mice, given that mice are creatures which elephants are, anecdotally, afraid of? Well, whilst mice might get rid of the elephants, they are primarily herbivores, and therefore would be likely to feast on the crops. Thereby replacing one pesky mammal with another… At least the bees only take a bit of pollen – and do something useful with it! Although it is argued that honeybees aren’t necessarily the right sort of bees to be encouraging for a more environmentally-considerate strategy…

**AND, keeping these African honeybees (Apis mellifera ssp. scutellata) in Africa on elephant patrol will also reduce the chances of them getting out of Africa and inter-breeding with other bee species and ‘Africanising’ them into aggressive aerial attackers of humans.

[Ed. – Encouragingly, this honeybee approach also seems to work against Indian elephants – in Thailand at least. For those who appreciate a reminder of the differences between African and Indian elephants, a handy guide can be found at Major Differences.]

Written by Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and was a full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK) until 31st July, 2019. As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ (until March 2019). He remains a botanist and is now a freelance plant science communicator who continues to share his Cuttingsesque items with a plant-curious audience. In that guise his main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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