Hunting For Wild Honey

For centuries hunters have followed the bees for tasty honey…

For many centuries man has hunted or followed the bees taking painstaking efforts to find active bee hives, and collect wild honey. Hunting for honey was actually an ancient sport, just as was as hunting and fishing. The hunt would lead them to hives that nested in hollow trees and rocks, the sport was to find the bee hives and rob them of their prize honey. This was not only a pleasurable pastime, but a profitable sport as well. Honey could be traded, and sold for at a good price.

Bees’s are well known to have a sense of orientation, that is as acute as that of homing pigeons.This made the task of finding a bee hive very easy for the hunter. One need just follow the bees… “Columella” (60 A.D.) describes how the hunters followed the bees. “Washington Irving” (A Tour of the Prairies, 1835) gives his account of his personal experience with honey-hunters in quest of “bee.” “They placed a honeycomb, which served as bait, on a low bush. Soon the bees appeared and after they had provided themselves with enough honey, they flew into the air and in a “bee-line” to their nest. The hunters followed the bees’ course and traced them to some hollow tree-trunks where they found their cache sometimes sixty feet above the ground. Then they chopped down the trees and with knives and scoops emptied the cavities, replete with honey.”

“Tickner Edwardes” (The Bee-Master of Warrilow) also tells how to discover wild bees’s nests. “It is useless to search the woods for wild honey, for one may travel a whole day and find nothing. The only plan is to follow the laden bees as they return. The bee master produces a saucer covered with honey which is in no time black with crowding bees. The saucer is then covered with a wire cage. These captured bees are the guides to the hidden treasure-chambers. By opening a small door In the trap, one bee is allowed to escape and she immediately rises into the air, makes a circle and speeds away in a certain direction which one must follow. After a while, another bee is set free, and the same procedure is repeated until the nest is located high in the hollow of a dead tree. The Russian name of a beekeeper is “tree climber”; in Lithuanian, a “bee climber”. The inseparable adjunct, almost an emblem of the Hungarian shepherd, is a stick with a little hatchet on its end. This, called fokos, was originally a beekeeper’s implement for cutting the trunk of the tree to remove the welcome treasure. A similar tool is still used in the District of Hanover, Germany. It is called Beide and is the symbol of beekeeping.”

It was a most ancient custom that the finder had the right to mark the trees with a special design or initials, after which he or his tribe had the sole privilege of collecting honey from such trees. The laws were strict and severe punishment was meted out for altering or destroying these markings. In Germany, if one were caught in the act of trespassing, he had to pay a fine and, besides, received twenty lashes. (Plate VII.)

Birds And Honey
On most every continent there are birds which love the taste of honey. Birds are good scouts to show the honey-hunters where the bees have built a nests. The birds receive their share for these services. “Vasco de Gama” related how the “honey-birds” of India guided the natives to where honey was to be found. The “ajaje” birds lead the Lango tribes, and the honey-ratels the Hottentots to the wild bees and their nests. The honey-guide (Cuculus indicator), a tropical bird, shows the South African natives where the honey can be had… As a reward, the bird receives part of the honey spoils. The natives faithfully obey this tradition, and give the birds their share of the honey; they believe, if the birds go unrewarded, they will take their revenge by not leading them to the hives, but lead them instead to a lion’s den or a snake’s nest. The birds will then fly away with a merry chirp to be heard for miles. According to a Rhodesian folk-tale, these vindictive creatures lead the travelers to the nests to retaliate for an old injury which they suffered from the bees.

Among primitive races honey-hunting was an important event and began with solemn rites. Chastity had to be observed the night before, otherwise the hunters would be badly stung by the bees or some other misfortune would befall them.

In the Middle Ages honey-hunting was a royal sport. The German archives describe the Nuremberg forests as a hunting ground of royalty not only for game but for wild honey. Charlemagne began to domesticate wild bees in the Nuremberg forests out of gratitude because, after he had been stung by bees, he recovered from an obstinate gout. The Nuremberg forests were called the bee-garden of the Holy Roman Empire and under the reign of Charles IV (134.7), the bee garden of Germany. From the honey collected there, the famous Lebkuchen was baked which is still popular the world over after twelve hundred years.

In many countries special permits were issued, and the amount of honey had to be accounted for and taxes paid on it. The Domes-day Book mentions that the Bishop of Worcester, under the reign of Edward the Confessor, was privileged to hunt for honey in the forests of Malvern.

The ancient origin of honey-hunting is demonstrated in mythology. (Plate VIII.) The Satyrs (Fauns), the attendants of Dionysus, were extremely fond of honey. In one of the legends the jolly old, red-nosed, bloated and, as a rule, intoxicated Silenus, the schoolmaster and foster-father of Bacchus and the alleged inventor of the flute, was anxious to find the wild bees’ nest and plunder it of honey. As the story goes, Silenus stood on his donkey’s back, reaching for honey-combs, when the bees flew at him and stung him on his bald head. He fell on top of the donkey, which, when also stung, kicked him and escaped, to the great merriment of the other Satyrs who witnessed his plight. Ovid describes the scene and tells how Dionysus laughed and taught Silenus how to ease the pain of the sting with mud. (Plate IX.)

Innumerable fables and legends refer to honey-hunting. One of the oldest legends, often mentioned in ancient literature, is that of Antophilus, the Greek poet, who was a great lover of honey and who sang its praise in his poems. Antophilus, while searching for wild honey, climbed a precipice and swinging on a rope, emptied the contents of a nest. Some honey trickled down the rope. His dog, also very fond of honey, chewed the rope and Antophilus fell from the perilous height and was killed.

The following, a rather amusing little story from Poland, is credited to Demetrius, the Russian Ambassador to Rome: “A man, searching in the woods for honey, slipped down into a great hollow tree, where he found himself up to his breast in a veritable lake of this sweet substance. He stuck fast there for two days, making the lonely woods resound in vain with his cries for help. Finally, when the man had almost abandoned hope, a large bear appeared upon the scene, bent on the same business that had taken the man there. Bruin smelled the honey, which had been stirred up by the struggles of the prisoner, and straightway climbed the tree and let himself down backward into the hollow. The man, whose wits had been sharpened by the adversity, caught him about the loins and made as vigorous an outcry as he could. Up clambered Bruin in a panic, not knowing what had got hold of him. Our man clung fast, and the bear tugged, until by main force he had pulled himself and his captor out of the tree; then he let go and Bruin, considerably frightened, took to the woods with all speed, leaving his smeared companion to his own congratulations.” Wilhelm Busch, the graphic humorist and pastmaster of comical sequence, must have been quite impressed by the story since he illustrated it with a complete serial of pictures.

In connection with honey-hunting we find among the primitive tribes of far-off continents many fanciful tales which relate the identical and characteristic yarn. The honey-hunter usually finds among the honeycombs in a tree an enchanted bee-woman who will cook for him and will prepare a delicious honey-wine. The hunter proposes marriage to her, which she accepts under the condition that he should never mention to anybody where he had found her, otherwise, she would disappear. This actual proviso is typical also of many other myths; the story of Psyche, the Lohengrin Saga and the story of Undine, are only a few instances. This peculiar secrecy seems to be analogous, in certain respects, with the curious marriage customs of primitive races, according to which a wife was not permitted to pronounce the husband’s name or it was unlawful for a husband to see his wife’s face until after she had given birth to her first child.

The following is a popular legend along the Orinoco River (Amazon region) : There was a man who possessed great skill in detecting bees’ nests, with which the forest abounded; in fact, he was better in this respect than anyone else. One day the man tried to drill a hollow tree, with the intention of removing honey, when suddenly he heard a loud scream, “You are killing me!” He carefully opened the tree and to his amazement, saw a beautiful naked woman before him. He made her a loin cloth and bade her marry him. The woman consented to be his wife under one condition, that he would never call her Maba (bee), or tell anyone that it was her name. Our man promised and the two became husband and wife. The hunter remained just as efficient in finding the bees’ nests as in former days. His wife made the best honey-wine that was ever brewed; a cupful was sufficient to supply all the guests. On one occasion, many visitors arrived, and they all became intoxicated. The host promised his guests that the next time his wife would prepare more and still better honey-wine, and in the same breath referred to her as Maba. In an instant, like a shot, Maba flew away. From that time on the man’s luck changed and honey became scarce in the region. His wife had been one of the legendary bee-women.

There are similar tales in Indonesia. The Bornean version, quoted in The Mythology of All Races (Vol. IX), is as follows:

A man named Rakian was out hunting for honey, when in the top of a mangis tree he saw many bees’ nests, in one of which were white bees. (Several Christian legends allude to snow-white bees producing virginal honey.) Since white bees were a rarity, he carefully removed the nest and took it home. The next day he was working in his garden and when he returned to his house in the evening he found a meal cooked for him. He was surprised because he lived alone. The following day the same thing occurred, his meal was again cooked. This continued for some time. Finally he resolved to investigate the mystery.

He pretended to go to the garden but silently returned, hid himself and watched. The door of the house soon creaked and a beautiful woman came out, and went to the river to fetch some water. While she was gone, Rakian entered the house, and found that the bees’ nest was empty. He hid the nest and secreted himself again. The woman returned and upon finding the nest gone commenced to weep. In the evening Rakian entered the house as was his custom. The woman sat there silent. “Why are you here?” he asked, “perhaps you want to steal my bees?” The woman answered, “I don’t know anything about your bees.” Rakian asked her to cook for him because he was hungry, but she refused, as she was vexed. The woman demanded her box but he was afraid that she would disappear into it again. She promised not to, and that she would become his wife if he would not disclose her identity. Rakian agreed; they were married and by and by she bore him a child.

One day Rakian went to a feast at his neighbors. All asked him whence his beautiful wife had come. He evaded the question. After a while, when they all were intoxicated, he forgot his promise and revealed to his friends that his wife had been a bee.

When he returned, his wife did not speak to him. Later she reproached him for having broken his promise and said that she must return to her home. “In seven days my father will pass here and I shall go with him, but the child I leave with you.” Rakian wept. He could not change her mind. Seven days later he saw a white bee flying by, whereupon his wife came out of the house and exclaimed: “There is my father.” She turned into a bee and flew away.

Rakian picked up the child and pursued the bees. For seven days he followed them until finally he lost sight of them. Soon a strange woman appeared who directed him to his wife’s home. Rakian climbed into the house and found it full of bees, except the middle room. The child began to cry, when suddenly Rakian’s wife appeared. Rakian was happy but she reproached him for revealing her secret. Finally they became reconciled and all the bees dropped down from the roof-beams to the floor and became men. Rakian and the child remained in the bees’ village.

There are similar fables among the African tribes.

An old Hungarian fable suggests that Christ, Himself, was a honey-hunter. Christ and St. Peter were wandering. Peter said, “It must be wonderful to be a God, help the widows and orphans, reward good deeds and punish the wicked. If this could be accomplished, there wouldn’t be any vice on earth.” While Peter was talking, Jesus looked around and noticed a bees’ nest in the hollow of a tree. Christ suggested to Peter that he put the swarm into his cap, “Maybe they will be useful.” Peter obeyed and put cluster after cluster into his cap until one of the bees stung him on the finger. With a loud cry of pain, he threw the cap, full of bees, to the ground, saying, “Oh, the devil shall take this swarm; how one of them has stung me!” Christ said, “Well, why don’t you find the one which stung you?” “How can I,” said Peter, “they all look alike.” Then Jesus said, “If you were God, you would do the same thing; if one of your people sinned, all the innocent would have to suffer.”

During the pioneer days of America honey-hunting was a profitable pursuit and a favorite occupation of the Southwestern backwoodsmen. Wild honey was sold for a quarter of a dollar a gallon and some bee-trees yielded as much as a dozen gallons of honey. The honey-hunter with his old sombrero, open hickory shirt and deer-skin breeches is often described in contemporary writings. He is portrayed as a real character; fond of nature, solitude and the stillness of the woods, listening to the drowsy hum of the bees. His power of vision became extremely keen through education and he could follow the bees with his eyes for hundreds of yards. His equipment consisted of an ax, several buckets, a fishing outfit and, of course, a rifle to protect him from Indians and bears.

The honey hunters, as a rule, built their log-cabins near navigable rivers and grew their vegetables on the land surrounding their shacks. They depended on their rifles to procure the necessary meat. Honey was an important article of barter. After the hunters had collected several barrels of honey, they rolled them down to the river bank, placed them on boats, and paddled their cargo to the nearest settlement where they exchanged the honey for flour, gunpowder, lead and other necessities. Hunters who lived on or near the banks of the Mississippi traded their honey with the skippers of the steamboats. The river men took the honey to New Orleans, where they sold it at a fair profit.

The importance of felling bee trees is best proven by the dispute which occurred in 1840 between the States of Iowa and Missouri. A farmer of Clark County (Mo.) cut down several bee trees filled with honey on the boundary line between the two States. This strip of land had been claimed by both States and ended in the so-called Honey-War. The United States Supreme Court finally decided the matter in 1851 and settled the exact boundary between the two States.