Buzz keeps the jumbos away

Farmer and social worker P T John, in collaboration with Kochi-based design studio Bblewrap, implemented the concept of a ‘buzzing fence,’ by hanging beehives along wires to address the escalating human-elephant conflicts
The incident came as a stark reminder of the increasing human-elephant conflicts plaguing Kerala.
The incident came as a stark reminder of the increasing human-elephant conflicts plaguing Kerala.

KOCHI: The serene landscape of Kuruva Island was marred by tragedy in February. Fifty-year-old Paul Vellachalil, a watcher with the Kuruva Island ecotourism centre, fell victim to an elephant attack.

The incident came as a stark reminder of the increasing human-elephant conflicts plaguing Kerala. As urban expansion and climate change continue to disrupt elephant habitats, human and wildlife alike face mounting threats. In the midst of this escalating conflict, farmers find themselves on the frontlines, their fields transformed into battlegrounds.

The consequences are dire — loss of life, injuries, and psychological trauma, not to mention the economic hardships and ecological imbalances that follow.

As a solution to tackle the complex issue, P T John, a farmer and social worker from Pakkam near the Kuruva Islands, turned to the concept of beehive fences. Along with Thanuram C A, Jackson D’Silva, Midhun S Kumar of Kochi-based design studio Bblewrap (a consulting agency) and his friend Krishnan Karani, John constructed beehive fences by installing a 400-meter fence comprising 25 boxes.

As wild animal attacks became a norm, he and other farmers put farming on hold for a while. and spent their nights safeguarding the farmland from further attacks. “Sometimes, when we deploy workers to stay up all night, it incurs an additional cost. I tried thinking of other ways to form a barrier, including solar fencing, but the efforts turned futile,” explains John.

That was when he came across news of tribal settlements in Wayanad installing bee boxes to prevent elephants from entering their field. The idea has been well established and put into practice by various African countries, which also face similar human-elephant conflicts. “I immediately called my friends — those in Bblewrap and Krishnan who make compact boxes and fences,” says John, a paddy farmer.

Midhun S Kumar, Thanuram C A, Jackson D’Silva
Midhun S Kumar, Thanuram C A, Jackson D’Silva

They installed the beehive fence last year on December 15 along John’s farmland but after several trials and errors. They hung bee hives along wires connected to trees and small wooden poles. The innovative approach releases aggressive bees when disturbed, prompting elephants to retreat.

“Beehive fencing is a sustainable and eco-friendly approach. It eliminates the need for farmers to personally guard their fields, minimising the risk of human-elephant encounters and reducing stress. Instead of spending nights in tree houses, farmers can now rest easy knowing their crops are protected. The bees truly prove to be vigilant watchmen,” explains Midhun.

The benefits for farmers are manifold — reduced crop damage, improved food security, and an additional income source through honey production.

When Italian bees stop by Pakkam

Italian bees (Apis mellifera) are usually used as the buzzing barriers. According to Bblewrap, this variety is sourced from several bee societies, including the Centre for Youth Development in Wayanad. Though the idea of bee fencing was implemented earlier in other parts of Kerala, it didn’t turn out to be successful because of the maintenance involved, they say.

“Maintenance is an important thing. It is crucial to make sure ants are not attacking the bees. To avoid that, we hang a half-cut bottle of water on top of the box, making it difficult for the ants to get to it,” explains Midhun.

During monsoon, to prevent the boxes from getting damaged, John explains, we keep palm leaves over the boxes instead of plastic to drain water.

But the maintenance of indigenous bees is difficult, he says. “The Italian bee variety is not invasive and is easier to handle. We studied them before implementing the fences. They are also good for forest health as they are excellent pollinators.”

This non-violent method has managed to ward off elephants in John’s farm area for the past six months. “This is a practical solution. At present, it is installed on my field. When elephants come, they immediately retreat after hearing the bee buzz. Since the installation of the fence, no attacks have been reported yet,” informs John.

P T John
P T John

Balancing art and nature

The maintenance and the smooth progress of fencing require financial support as well. So far, the farmers source funds by creating and selling local artistic products and other works to Bblewrap.

“We can’t rely on any specific fund because when it stops, the project also stops. We also can’t rely solely on the income received from selling honey. It’s not a sustainable solution. Economical viability is needed,” explains Thanuram.

Working with John was a novel experience for them. “When we went there, we saw their issues. People were scared to sleep or walk around at night. They used to sleep in the paddy fields for three to four months ahead of the harvest. They say these issues prevent the next generation from taking up farming and agriculture,” says Jackson.

Ensuring the project’s economic viability and delivering tangible benefits to farmers pose significant challenges, the team says. To overcome this, the farmers and the locals of Kuruva island create crafts and give them to Bblewrap’s project titled ‘Edible Forest’. The products include honey, paintings, pottery and bamboo crafts.

“We buy the local products and then sell them to bigbrands. This money contributes to securing funding for the project expansion and maintenance, creating substantial value for society, the environment, and the lives of farmers and elephants,” says Thanuram.

Future ahead

Since the pilot project at John’s paddy field has proved to be successful so far, the group plans to expand the initiative by involving other farmers as well. “Some farmers have already approached for expansion. The aim is to put an end to human-animal conflict, so we have plans to create more boxes. The government should give subsidies to farmers for the implementation of bee boxes,” says John. The group has plans to install 25 more boxes in the coming season.

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