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Elephants, bees and the marriage tree

Elephants, bees and the marriage tree


Legend, tradition and folklore abound in Africa, and are often viewed with some scepticism in this, the post-modern era. However, it would seem that much received wisdom still has the potential to reveal startling information about the natural world in which we live; elephants, bees and the marriage tree being no exception…

Legend has it that Hare acted kindly towards Elephant during a year of drought by helping him to find water, and was rewarded with a tusk. This he planted in his garden where it grew into a beautiful fruit-bearing tree which he named Marula. However, this tusk was so precious to Elephant that to this day, he seeks it out under the Marula tree, devouring vast quantities of the fruit every season to sustain him in his quest.

Known scientifically as Sclerocarrya birrea, the Marula tree is of great importance not only to elephants, but also to humans. A profusion of flowers blooms in the early summer, at which time the background hum of bees is ever present. Then, from February to April, fruits the size of large apricots are borne on the female trees. During these three months, in keeping with the legend, elephants (Loxodonta africana) are never far away from this bountiful food source, often shaking the trees to make them give up their valuable prize. Marula fruits contain 54mg/100g of vitamin C, two to four times that of citrus, and bull elephants in musth (a periodic cycle in which their impulse to mate goes into overdrive and they become very aggressive) consume particularly large quantities of the fruit in order to boost their immune systems during their pursuit of females.

Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have used the Marula tree for some 12 000 years not only as a source of food and alcoholic beverages, but also for medicinal and ritual purposes. Since the trees are dioecious (male and female flowers are borne on separate trees) and must grow in close proximity in order to produce fruit, they hold great significance for matters of the heart. In many traditional cultures, it is believed that marriages held under the Marula tree are divinely blessed, and that resolution of marital conflict can be accomplished by tying husband and wife each to the relevant gender tree and leaving them there until they make friends…

The African honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the heretofore missing link between elephants and the marriage tree. As the primary pollinator of Sclerocarrya birrea, it ensures that Elephant is provided with sustenance for both the search for his tusk and for females. However, as with many legends, there is a sting in the tail: elephants are terrified of bees!

Evidence of this entered the scientific community in 2002, when Fritz Vollrath and Iain Douglas-Hamilton were discussing possible methods of preventing further elephant damage to Fever trees (Acacia xanthaphloea) growing along the Ewaso Nyiru River in the Laikipia area of Kenya. Interviews conducted then, and later by Lucy King from Oxford University for her doctoral thesis, revealed that scenes of elephants being chased up to five kilometres by angry bees had been documented by local people for decades, and had been part of Masai legend for generations. King’s research demonstrated that elephants utter a distinctive rumble in response to the sound of bees, after which they run away, shaking their heads. Her study provided the first evidence of an alarm call in the species. Tapping into elephants’ well-documented intelligence and memory, King et al went on to devise a simple strategy of deterring elephants from damaging trees and local farmers’ crops. This was to hang beehives from wooden posts at 10-metre intervals with a long metal wire linking them all together. When an elephant hits the wire, it shakes the hives and sends angry honeybees swarming into a defensive frenzy. Elephants associate the noise with previous severe pain in their trunks, and depart without further ado.

So, not only has legend and the observations of our ancestors stood the test of scientific scrutiny, but the use of Marula fruits to make alcohol has passed into the 21st Century. Now, where did I leave my glass of Amarula…?


Lorraine Doyle

Lorraine Doyle

Lorraine Doyle is the owner of Africa Nature Training. This is the first article in a series on bush lore and the wonders of the African Bushveld.