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The Toe Tag: Bee Aware

Research conducted through UCO and the OKC Zoo may help aid in halting elephant poaching.



K9 officers are well-known resources in law enforcement for finding bombs and drugs fleeing criminals, while cadaver dogs are indispensable partners with their capacity to help find deceased individuals, but what if I told you honey bees can be trained to serve a similar function?

Enter Megan Ladish, honey bee charmer extraordinaire.

Ladish, a second-year graduate student at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Forensic Science Institute, is focusing her research on training western honey bees to track elephant scent instead of human scent.

Why western honey bees? According to her research, western honey bees are known for their excellent foraging capabilities and their heightened sense of smell. The western honey bee is also a low-cost efficient asset that can be trained in scent detection in as little as one session. These bees can be trained and conditioned to track a specific scent to its source. Ladish’s Pavlovian-style method of conditioning her bees to track the desired scent is rewarded by her elephant-scented sugar cocktail that she makes for them.

Why elephants? There is a field called wildlife forensics which focuses on crimes on or against wildlife. Elephants are an endangered and protected species covered under the Endangered Species Act, the African Elephant Conservation Act, and the Asian Elephant Conservation Act, to name a few. These laws and acts were put in place to help conserve and protect these species making crimes involving the sale and/or trade of their ivory tusks, hides, bushmeat and other contraband illegal. With her research and in a practical setting, Ladish’s bees could be able to assist in locating elephant contraband on or in environments where illegal trade is suspected on large vessels such as shipping containers, cargo carriers and aircrafts.

Elephants at the OKC Zoo. - BERLIN GREEN
  • Berlin Green
  • Elephants at the OKC Zoo.

How are the bees trained?

This is where the Oklahoma City Zoological Park and Botanical Garden steps in. The OKC Zoo is home to eight Asian elephants as part of their conservation efforts to help the declining population.

Since 2019, Rachel Emory has been the curator of pachyderms at the OKC Zoo. She and her staff work daily with the elephants Emory has been caring for since 2014. The elephants get voluntary training twice a day as well as baths every morning. The elephants are also assessed visually and behaviorally and undergo weekly blood draws to establish a normal baseline behavior and to alert staff of any abnormalities that could indicate the early detection of disease or medical issues. The elephant’s participation in these assessments and training is completely voluntary, meaning the elephants choose to participate and interact with zoo staff. An integral part of the elephants’ care includes the trimming of their footpads. The bottom of the elephants’ foot, also referred to as a pad, is made of a calloused keratin-type material that requires trimming. If the pads are not trimmed, rocks and other things can become wedged or stuck in the pockets of the pads causing pain. These pad shavings provide Ladish with an integral part of the elephant that could help train her bees to recognize their scent. With the pad shavings, she mixes a sugar solution with parts of the elephant pad shavings which proves to be a nice reward when the honeybees go to the scented solution.

Ladish’s ongoing research through the summer is made possible by grant for UCO’s Oklahoma Center for Wildlife Forensics and Conservation Studies as well as the zoo itself.

To think, the end of elephant trafficking might have its beginning at the OKC Zoo’s Sanctuary Asia habitat.

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