Opportunistic Honey Hunting among Hunter Gatherers

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Throughout history the gathering of honey by humans has been an important source of food, and 'opportunistic honey hunting' by humans goes back to prehistoric times. This involves simply raiding a bees' nest when found, and harvesting the honeycombs from it. Mesolithic rock art, particularly from Europe and Africa, illustrates the various techniques utilized in honey-gathering, with the use of rope ladders and lianas, as well as portraying bees swarms and collecting baskets. It has been suggested that many of the allegedly 'entopic' figures depicted, such as the concentric circles, may well in fact represent the combs on the underside of rock overhangs (Bodenheimer 1951: 14-15; Crane 1999: 49-51). Humans seem to have an innate liking for sweetness, and this no doubt derives from the importance of fruits and honey among early human communities. Baboons and chimpanzees certainly have a taste for honey, and are especially prone to raid the nests of stingless bees (Meliponinae).

Honey-hunting is common and widespread among contemporary hunter-gatherers. As there are no honey-bees (Apis spp.) native to Australia, Australian Aborigines harvest the honey - as well as collecting the brood and wax - of small stingless bees (Trigona spp.). To locate the 'honeybag' of the bees the hunter-gatherers would examine trees likely to hold nesting colonies, watching for the movement of the bees, or putting their ears close to the trunk of the tree to listen to the sound of the bees through the wood, or they would attach a piece of fluff or a petal to a foraging bee by means of sticky resin, and then follow the bee to its nest. Men, women and children all engage in honey-gathering. The nests are usually to be found in hollow trees, rock crevices or termite mounds. Most of the honey gathered was consumed on the spot. The honey comb was consumed whole, the inedible wax being spat out. Nests of the Trigona carbonaria bee yielded about 2 kg of honey (Bodenheimer 1951: 115-25; Cherry 1993a: 10; Crane 1999: 88-90).

Among African hunter-gatherers opportunistic honey-hunting both for the honey-bee (Apis sp.) and the stingless bee (Trigona sp.) plays an important, even if sporadic, role in their lives. Honey is almost universally highly valued as food, even though its collection may be unsystematic and quite destructive. James Woodburn thus records that, among the Hadza of Tanzania, when a nest of wild bees is found and raided for its honey 'No portion of the comb is left to encourage the bees to stay. Moreover, little effort is made to leave the nest suitable for reoccupation' (1968: 53). To illustrate the importance of honey-gathering among African foragers we can briefly outline studies of two communities, the Central Kalahari San and the Mbuti of the Ituri forest, Zaire.

The San of the Central Kalahari collect honey from three types of bees. The first is the honey of Anthophorid bees, which resemble small, hairy carpenter bees. They make nests in the ground, in deep tunnels. The honey is so thin that it is eaten only as a snack by children. The second type is the honey from the leafcutter bee (Megachile spp.), which is sporadically collected when cutting firewood, as the bee nests in hollow stems. The honey is very sweet, and is also given mainly to children. But the most important is the honey of the honey-bee (Apis sp.), which nests in tree hollows. The San generally come across the bee colonies when out foraging, although they may search for the bees by following the tracks of the honey badger, or the flights of bee-eaters. Honey is considered a 'superb delicacy', even if it is only sporadically gathered. Silberbauer remarks that among the G/wi 'beelore' is remarkably extensive, considering that they rob the nests only infrequently, and that the 'notorious aggressiveness' of the African honey-bee hardly allows close observation (Silberbauer 1981: 76, Nonaka 1996: 35).

Interestingly, R. B. Lee's detailed study of the !Kung San (1979) has little mention of honey-gathering among these people, whose diet seems to focus around meat and mongongo nuts, while Marshall notes that, though they 'delight in honey', they seldom find it (1976: 129).

In contrast, honey-gathering among the Mbuti of the Ituri forest is of vital importance in their socio-economic life, especially during the honey season, which lasts around two months (May-July), when the net-hunting bands split up into smaller groups. They recognize many different kinds of honey, and collect honey from more than ten species of bees, although the bulk of the honey gathered is that of the African honey-bee (Apis mellifera adansonii), which nests in hollow branches up to 30 metres high in the forest trees. Other honey gathered is that of stingless bees, which nest low down in trees, or in the ground. While honey from the Apis bee is always collected by men and youths who can climb the high trees, women often collect the honey of the stingless bees, which belong to several genera (including the species Meliponula bocandei, Trigona braunsi and Dactylurina staudingeri). The Mbuti suggest that the honey from the stingless bees can be toxic and cause diarrhoea, or aching joints. Honey is their favourite food, and Turnbull writes that: 'There is a craving for honey during the season that never seems to be satisfied. No amount of alternative foods, even meat, can reduce this passion for honey' (1965: 170).

In a seminal paper on the ecological and sociological aspects of honey-collecting among the Mbuti, Mitsuo Ichikawa notes that during the months of May to July it is their main subsistence activity. The Mbuti, like other forest hunter-gatherers, are skilful tree climbers, and collect honey usually in the early morning. Within a few hours a person may find 2-3 hives. When the bee colony is opened, they blow in smoke through a tube, and do not seem unduly worried by the bees, in spite of the 'aggressive' reputation of African honey-bees. During a twelve-day period at one camp, Ichikawa recorded that they collected honey from the hives of forty-five honey-bees and four stingless bees. This amounted to 229 kg of honey, and as the camp consisted of twenty-three persons, it was estimated that 0.83 kg of honey was consumed by each person per day. Thus during the honey season honey was not only deemed to be their favourite food, but constituted around 70 per cent of their diet - and 80 per cent of their calorific intake. Equally importantly, honey is widely shared in the camp, and thus, as Ichikawa writes, it functions as a 'lubricant' of social relationships. Opportunistic honey-hunting is thus not only important to the Mbuti from a nutritional point of view, but also structurally (Turnbull 1965; 168, Ichikawa 1981: 59-65).

Although the Mbuti have, historically, a close 'symbiotic' relationship with neighbouring agriculturalists, they seem to trade very little honey -unlike the Hadza and the forest hunter-gatherers of South Asia (see my study of the Hill Pandaram of South India, Forest Traders, for details of honey-gathering and trade among these foragers 1982: 84-7).

Opportunistic bee-hunting is, of course, widespread throughout Africa, and by no means confined to hunter-gatherers. Over the past two millennia it has been, perhaps, the main means of acquiring honey among subsistence cultivators. Indeed, given the fact that much of sub-Saharan Africa is covered with either tropical forest or open savannah woodland, a Brachystegia-type woodland familiarly known as miombo woodland (cf. Morris 1970; Malaisse 1978), the African sub-continent has been described as 'good bee country' (Crane 1999: 49). In Malawi, and elsewhere in Africa, the unsystematic collection of honey, from both the honey-bee and the stingless bee, has been a common practice for many centuries. Whenever bees established nests in grain silos at Zoa half a century ago, it was never difficult to find local men willing and able to remove the colony of bees - and collect their honey in the process. But opportunistic honey-gathering, whether from rock crevices or hollow trees, is sporadic and limited. It simply involves the finding of the nest -and in the past, the behaviour of a small bird, appropriately named the honey-guide (Indicator indicator), may have been significant in this (see Laws 1934: 240; Foran 1958: 124-8; Hooper 1989) - the use of an axe, hoe or panga to open up the nest cavity, and the smoking of the bees. The collection of honey is often described as simply a 'raid' on the hive. As with the Hadza, this could often be a destructive exercise - and, as Alex Banda (1991) suggests, quite dangerous (one of my close Hill Pandaram friends, Kuttan, though an expert climber, lost his life after falling from a tree while collecting honey from the large Asian bee Apis dorsata).

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