Innovator Profiles: Lucy King Uses Bees to Keep the Peace Between Humans and Elephants

As head of the Human Elephant Co-Existence Program for Save the Elephants, Dr. Lucy King spends her days thinking about how elephants and humans can better live together. The answer may lie with bees.

Elephants are naturally afraid of bees. Armed with this knowledge, King founded the Elephants and Bees Project, which uses bee hive fences to keep crop-raiding elephants from farms and the humans who inhabit them. The output of honey is an added bonus for the communities.

“For conservation, we need high tech solutions and grassroots solutions,” said King. “At the grassroots level, we have no electricity, no internet, no way of getting fiber optics into these communities. They hardly have water, so you can’t always use technology for every solution.”

We sat down with King to talk about her work, why she has the “best job in the world” and her hope for elephants in the future.

As you mentioned, there are all kinds of high tech solutions in wildlife conservation. What’s it been like to work on the opposite end of the spectrum, at the grassroots level?

We’re using a technology called a beehive fence which has absolutely no electricity at all. There are no solar panels, there are no moving parts. It’s as simple as it comes. It’s just two trees planted in the ground and we hang a beehive between two posts. We put a bit of a shade roof on top and we do this every 10 meters around the farm. It could not be easier and it’s very cheap. What’s amazing is that we can just walk and see what’s happening with the elephants as they approach. If we’re lucky, we get one of our collared elephants approaching the beehive fences. So high and low technology, it suddenly combines and we can look at the moving technology of this elephant hitting a very simple cheap beehive fence, and we can learn a lot from these interactions. We’ve just collared 20 more elephants in our study area hoping to get much more data on the actual movements of collared elephants around our project’s site. So both are necessary but we can’t always rely on technology to do things at the grass root level.

What’s are some of your most memorable moments in the field?

There are so many fun stories on our projects. I think I have the best job in the world to be honest. We just have back-to-back excitement because we’re working on a positive project. We’ve come across a problem and we’re dealing with farmers who need our help, but they’re such amazing people. Suddenly we’ve brought in a technology that’s helping them and it’s so positive. We have this interaction with our farmers and we’ve learned so much from them.

Our female farmer Charity who’s our chief honey producer is just the most amazing woman, and working with her and helping her improve her farm and her farming environment because of the beehive fence has been very rewarding. We’ve done trials with Charity because she’s so switched on. We bought her some sunflower seeds around two years ago. I’m not joking, we spent $1.50 on a bag of sunflower seeds and she planted it once, took the seeds from that plant and replanted again. On the third plantation we went to see her and she had sold her bag of sunflower seeds for $140. This is a woman who’d been given a $1.50 head start, and she had turned that around into $140 dollars worth of income for herself. Just seeing those innovative women out there in Africa who are just given a little head start, can look after themselves and get their foot up the ladder and get their kids into school. So those are probably the most heartening stories.

What is your hope for the future of elephants?

The hope has to be that the next generation is going to care more than the last one. It has to be. They’re being brought up in this difficult world and they’re seeing these challenges and these mistakes that have made by the generations above us, and they’re shocked by it and horrified and they are the most educated generation we’ll ever have. You might have a Samburu warrior walking around with skins and beads, but they have an iPhone in their pocket. So this is going to be the first generation of highly aware youth coming up and who have said “Enough.” They’re not going to be buying ivory, they’re not going to be buying fur, they’re not going to be buying odd things that come from animals that we do not need. So the hope is that this next generation will solve some of the problems that we are facing today. And we’re trying to help with that by having our educational program train young people from all over Africa and Kenya, but also internationally. So let’s hope that we have a forthcoming next generation to help us through these wildlife and environmental challenges.