Significance of Native Bees to Aboriginal People

By Steve Maginnity

The original inhabitants of Australia were estimated to have arrived in the country over 40,000 years ago. These people were skilled hunters and gatherers and practiced their techniques throughout the country, uninterrupted, for thousands of years, until a little more than 200 years ago when European settlers arrived.

The major difference between the two cultural groups was that the Aboriginals moved with the seasons collecting food at the different locations they visited, whereas the Europeans would settle in an area and modify the environment to suit their needs.

Aboriginal people regarded native bees as very important in their culture. The Aboriginal people have known and used native bees for food and tools for thousands of years. Honey was presented to tribal elders by hunters as a sign of respect. Native bee honey acted as a popular sweetener and was searched for and found in nests located in trees, stumps, rocky crevices and muddy river banks. Dean Ratumal who is a member of the Bundjalung clan (an Aboriginal tribe on the east coast of Northern NSW) has said that in order to find the hives of native bees, Aboriginal hunters would catch foraging bees and attach small pieces of feather, spider web or grass to the pollen sacs or resin being collected by the bees.

This would make the bee’s flight more difficult due to the extra weight of the object attached to its leg. The bee would then fly slowly enough for the Aboriginal hunter to follow it to its hive. If the bee nest was high in a tree the aboriginals would not cut down the tree. Instead they would carve foot holes into the tree and climb the tree to obtain the contents of the nest. By doing this they would be able to come back to the tree at a future date once the bees had recovered, rebuilt and collected further stores of honey and pollen.

Evidence has shown that Aboriginals used the wax and resin produced by native bees for fastening implements of stone to wood. They heated the wax to bind the two objects together for use as hunting tools.

The honey of the native bees was also used for ceremonial use. When men were being prepared for weddings they were coated in honey and feathers and other objects were stuck to them for decoration. Baskets for carrying water were made by joining leaves and sealing them with bees wax. Aboriginal people would smear native bees honey on open wounds to prevent swelling and bacterial infections. Musical instruments such as didgeridoos had cerumen placed around the mouth piece to act as a sealant.

© Steve Maginnity, NSW, 2015.

Extract from Steve Maginitty’s Book Australian Native Bees for Schools, available in our store for $22.
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