It turns out that African elephants don’t like bees. In fact, Lucy King and her team from Oxford University, in collaboration with zoologists from Disney’s Animal Kingdom and from Nairobi’s Save the Elephants Foundation, have found that elephants have a distinct bee alarm call.
The researchers noticed that elephants quickly leave an area when they hear the buzzing of angry bees. While fleeing, the elephants shake their heads and emit a particular rumbling call. The scientists recorded both the sound of bees and of the call. When either was played back to groups of elephants, the elephants left the area. In fact, elephants were three times as likely to evacuate an area when the bee rumble was played as when a control rumbling call was played for them. They also moved considerably further away.
There are a few other cases of mammals using specific calls to indicate specific predators. The best known is probably the vervet monkey, which has distinct alarm calls for snakes, eagles, and leopards. It’s easy to see how a small monkey’s survival is greatly improved by knowing whether a threat is approaching by land or air. It’s a bit trickier to understand why elephants should have a special warning for what seems to be more of an irritation than a real danger. The scientists speculate that this rumbling sound could be one of many ‘words’ spoken by elephants, and that they may in fact have a wide vocabulary.
On the other hand, maybe they just really don’t like bees.