Photo courtesy of Mark Wright
African bush elephants can break through fences and destroy crops or large trees — including iconic and endangered ones. These missteps could be deadly to the elephants as people who see them as a dangerous nuisance demand they be killed.
However, a natural and non-lethal elephant deterrent exists: African honeybees. Elephants are scared by the sight, sound and even smell of the bees and their hives. Farmers and conservation organizations such as Save the Elephants have installed hives along key fence lines. But the bees’ food and water requirements can make the hives costly to maintain.
What if, wondered Mark Wright, an insect ecologist and integrated pest management expert at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, you could design something that would mimic the pheromones emitted by alarmed honeybees, thereby also deterring elephants? Wright is developing a blend of substances found in honeybee alarm pheromones that could produce that effect.
Wright says he’s still perfecting the mixture — which uses synthetic versions of the compounds rather than extracting them from bees — so it can evoke a “consistent and gentle” deterrence response. “You don’t want 50 elephants storming around and crashing into things,” he says. However, if the blend isn’t bothersome enough, the elephants won’t leave.
Innovators have been using nature as a role model for decades. Sometimes the invention just benefits people. But, as in the case of Wright’s bee-inspired elephant repellent, sometimes nature can benefit, too.
So-called “bioinspired design” often starts with identifying plants or animals that excel in certain functions, says Marc Weissburg, co-director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design. For instance, pitcher plant rims are wildly slippery, earthworms’ bendy bodies make them top-notch burrowers, and tammar wallabies’ leg tendons are optimized to power their repeated hopping.