Wednesday, August 4, 2021

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HomeIssue 3A touch of light: bee totemic

A touch of light: bee totemic

By MIKE GILLAM

Photo © Mike Gillam

As a sequel to last week’s “The colony” I wanted to publish an image of native bees to counterbalance the rapacious ferals. I photographed this native bee debauchery, a mixture of fighting, sex and frantic digging just after sunrise in the northern margins of the Simpson Desert.

Thousands of bees were focussed on the dune crest within a linear strip, a few metres in diameter and less than twenty in length. The bees finished their business on the surface and vanished an hour after sunrise, leaving the sand dune crest pock marked with many hundreds of burrows, located mostly within the shade zone of low shrubby Sennas.

I was so preoccupied with the struggle to photograph the chaotic scene that I paid less attention to the burrowing bees but I think multiple individuals were using the same burrows.

Writing about Australian wildlife, I’m often dismayed by the lack of available information, forcing me to delve into my memories and observations as a nature photographer. On the subject of native bees however, the problem is reversed.

I was simply inundated with cultural information, about Aborigines hunting sugarbag from Central Australia to Arnhem Land, of paintings, dance, funeral rights; and in our northern cities, another swarm of bee ecologists, of scientific endeavour and myriad options for designing the bee hives of the future.

Nevertheless, most knowledge of Australian native bees is derived from a small number of stingless species believed to be the best producers of wild honey or ‘sugarbag’. According to the Wheen Bee Foundation there are over 2000 native species in Australia, so the gaps in our knowledge and indeed the shortcomings in this article are truly immense.

I found beautifully poetic references to wild bees and honey in the classic ethnographic film Waiting for Harry: This extraordinary film provides a rare insight into the mortuary rights of Arnhem Land’s Anbarra people and can be viewed through IATSIS for a modest rental fee.

During the final burial ceremony, a sand sculpture represents the hollow log form of the bee’s nest and a feathered string stretched in line above are the bees returning with honey. The deceased man’s brother sings about the bees’ nest, connecting it to the elaborately painted hollow log that will be used to house the bones, carefully painted with ochre and broken up.

Frank Gurrmanamana sings of the rich, dark honey in the nest. The following English translation is provided in the film’s subtitles:

Where bees swell the honeycomb
Ripe for sucking
Spirit women gather honey in baskets
Bees in a line
Hollow log coffin
It follows its true path.

 Later in the film he sings:

Dry tree trunk
Oozing drops of dark honey
Dry tree trunk
Waxy cells oozing thick fermented honey
A long line of bees
Honeycomb. Sugarbag
Drips from the mouth of the hollow log.


Stories abound of Aboriginal people observing the behaviour of predatory wasps and flies to guide them to a bee hollow, others of people attaching a streamer of spider web to a foraging bee so they could follow it more easily.

I’ve seen references to native bees nesting in a wide range of different trees –mulga, lancewood, bloodwood, ironwood, paperbark and even in rock crevices. Assumptions can’t readily be made about the species involved, whether one or many.

In truth we know very little about Australian native bees, their role in natural ecosystems, conservation status or potential benefits to people. At a time when both regional and local extinctions of native bees are likely rising sharply, I’m pleased to report that the public interest in native bees, beekeeping and the planting of bee friendly native gardens is also rising meteorically. 

This human behaviour is largely altruistic given that a native stingless beehive might produce barely one litre of honey that can be harvested per annum in the best climatic regions. In locations with typically cold winters, such as Alice Springs, honey stores are needed by the colony to prevent starvation.

Writing this article, I discovered a growing number of associations that are forming across the country dedicated to the conservation of native bees and the exchange of knowledge. I encountered inspirational people such as bee researcher Dr Tobias Smith of Beeaware kids in Brisbane who explained there were about 600 species of stingless bees globally, and 11 in Australia, falling into two groups — the tetragonula bees on the coast and the inland austroplebeia.

“Stingless bees are found in a lot of tropical and sub-tropical parts of Australia [including] New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia,” he told the ABC’s Zara Margolis.

These are the best known producers of honey known colloquially as sugarbag, which is not only sweet but has medicinal qualities.

“We now know that stingless bee honey does have strong anti-microbial qualities, similar and in some cases much better than what we recognise in manuka honey…

“Trials haven’t been done in human health yet, [but] if this work continues to be done we may well see medical industries jumping on stingless bee honey just as they’ve jumped on manuka honey.”

Writing for the Australian Native Bee Association Australia, Dean Haley, an innovative stingless beekeeper, traced the origins of this strange word ‘sugarbag’ back to colonial times and the meeting of cultures at Port Jackson.

Early pastoralist Robert Dawson, in his book The Present State of Australia (1831), recorded passing an axe to a Worimi man north of Port Jackson: “The man expressed satisfaction and pleasure, and told Dawson in pidgin, that he would get ‘choogar-bag’ and pointed to the branches of a nearby tree. Dawson’s guide Bungareeiii confirmed that this meant honey. This 1831 reference to a pidgin word (choogar-bag) is the first known record of sugarbag meaning native bee honey …”

My research for this story has had unexpected rewards for me personally. I discovered a rich community of Australians, a generous and passionate fraternity more interested in sustainability, the exchange of knowledge and new frontiers in science than matching our expectations of commercial honey production.

I’ll leave the last word to Dean Haley: “…I would like to conclude by acknowledging my Aboriginal (Ngemba Wielwan) ancestry and to express my respect for the Indigenous people of NSW and Northern Territory that I have mentioned. I respect the peacemakers in all cultures, and hope we can sit down and share sugarbag together…”

 

For the complete series of “A touch of light” go to the Features button on the home page menu bar.

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