An elephant herd leisurely grazes through a savanna in central Kenya. A small elephant calf playfully chases his older sister through the brush while their mother, the matriarch (leader) of the herd, strips bark from a large acacia tree with her tusks and grabs leaves with her trunk. As the matriarch approaches the next tree buffet she suddenly halts. She starts shaking her head and throwing dust over her shoulder, signs of great agitation. She sounds an alarm call and the entire herd of a dozen elephants runs shrieking away from the trees.
There are no lions or other predators around, and there are no people – these are the things that usually agitate elephants and make them run away.
What could be threatening the elephants and make them go screaming away from the trees?
Dr. Lucy King has studied that question. It turns out that it was something small that scares elephants when they get close to certain trees.
A mouse? No, it is only a myth that elephants are scared of mice.
Elephants are scared of bees.
African honeybees are very aggressive. They form swarms of thousands of bees that attack any animal that gets too close to their hives. They sting their victim as a single unit, delivering thousands of stings within seconds.
These attacks can kill people, but are they enough to kill or harm an elephant? “Yes,” says Dr. King. “It seems that over the millennia elephants have learned to avoid trees with beehives. We think this must have come from elephants trying to forage in Acacia trees, accidentally knocking open a wild beehive and as a consequence being stung in the face, around the eyes and up the trunk.”
Dr. King collected data to show that elephants are afraid of bees. “We have collected a lot of anecdotal stories about this from herdsmen, farmers and rangers who have witnessed elephants being stung by wild bees. They run away as quickly as possible!” she explains. “I recorded the sound of very disturbed angry bees and played it back to families of elephants resting under trees using a hidden wireless speaker system to see how they might react should a wild hive be disturbed nearby. They ran away just like the anecdotes suggested. I've witnessed one family running from real beehives and it’s true - they just get out of there as fast as possible.”
Written by David Brown.