Rock Art Paintings of Honeybee Combs in the Western Cape

By Geoff Tribe

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Wild honeybee nests in southern Africa have been robbed for millennia by Bushmen (San) who were the original inhabitants of the sub-continent before the arrival of the Bantu tribes from the north and the European settlers from the south. Honey was possibly the only sweetness known to them which was obtained not only from honeybees but also from stingless Trigona bees. Bee brood was also a much relished source of food. Honeybee nests were marked in some way and individually or tribally owned and were robbed at the appropriate season when the combs were full of honey. Being nomadic, the San travelled vast distances following the availability of food according to the seasonal cycle.

There are many thousands of paintings on the walls of caves or rock overhangs in southern Africa which are thousands of years old, with some extending into the early colonial period. The San (Bushman) painters covered a wide variety of subject matter, the interpretation of some of them fill many scholarly books. Honeybees also played an important role in their mythology (e.g. Pager 1974; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1989).

One painting that occurs in many parts of southern Africa and which was initially thought to depict a necklace was subsequently shown to represent combs of honeybees. Necklaces were worn by the San and were made out of small pieces of ostrich egg shells in which a hole was drilled and then strung together with a piece of string. However, a Zululand commercial beekeeper, Robin Guy, on visiting the preponderance of paintings in the Natal Drakensberg identified these ‘necklaces’ as depicting hanging honeybee combs within a honeybee nest.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1 The hanging combs of a nest of Apis mellifera scutellata hanging under the branch of a pine tree in a suburb of Pretoria.

There is no mistaking their resemblance to the combs of a wild honeybee nest (Fig. 1). This was further confirmed where at some of these sites, the catenary combs were accompanied by dots or bees with red bodies and white wings (Fig. 2a & b).

Frequently the artists made use of the varied surface relief of the walls of the cave to incorporate certain blemishes or imperfections into their paintings. Examples include the painting of an eland around an inclusion in the wall which is used to represent its eye, or a procession of antelope which appear to be emerging from a crack in the wall. The figure of a woman may be painted around a hole in the wall to represent a female’s abdomen or womb (Anderson). In this painting (Fig. 2a) it appears as if the bees are flying out of a crevice in the wall – very much as they would in the wild where many colonies make their nests within rock crevices. The large number of bees, especially concentrated at the lip of the crack and spreading outwards, indicates either an orientation flight or an absconding swarm. Botha’s Shelter contains 899 magnificent paintings including that of combs painted below the stomach of an eland and a bird associated with the bees which in the context could represent a honeyguide (Pager 1971).

Rock art depicting honeybees appears to be rather scarce along the western seaboard of southern Africa as compared with that of the eastern seaboard. And the West Coast paintings most often depict hanging combs which occur in such places as overhangs along the Oorlogskloof Hiking Trail (Fig. 3); on a farm in the Swartruggens Mountains overlooking the Tanqua Karoo (Figs 4 & 5); and in a cave in the Aurora Mountains above the town of that name (Fig. 6). Here again (Fig. 4) the artist has made use of the natural shape of the cave wall to incorporate the convex bump on which to paint the catenary combs. This gives a more realistic three dimensional effect of what a real nest would look like if viewed from below. Similarly, honeybee nests are often found hanging under projecting rocks, and the artist (Fig. 3) has made use of the small projection from the cave wall under which to paint the combs – simulating what occurs in nature.

Rock art depicting the robbing of bee nests occurs more frequently along the eastern seaboard of South Africa. For example, a painting in Eland Cave in the Drakensberg Mountains depicts a honey hunter with a bag on his back climbing a forked ladder to reach a honeybee nest around which bees are flying in agitation (Pager 1973). Similarly, three bees’ nests with ladders giving access to them may be seen in Anchor Shelter (Crane 1983). Near Bergville in KwaZulu-Natal, there is a ladder in close association with two bees’ nests depicted in a painting in Tugela Shelter (Crane 1983). In the Brandberg Mountains of Namibia a swarm of 376 bees are depicted in a painting. Yet the only depiction of a honey hunter in the Western Cape appears to be in a high overhang on a farm near De Hoek at the foot of the Swartbergpas 10km from the Cango Caves in the Oudtshoorn District. In this now faded painting, a man appears to be lowered from above with both hands gripping the rope above him and dots, presumably bees, all around his head. Attached to his body is what appears to be a flaming torch. In this ‘cave’, known as Buck krantz, because it also depicts antelope plummeting over the cliff, there are several honeybee nests in its walls even to this day. These nests are in holes in the wall which are entirely covered with propolis except for several tiny entrances through which the bees forage (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7

Fig. 7 Propolis covered entrances to honeybee nest in cavities in the wall of the Buck krantz rock overhang where a painting depicts the robbing of these same nests.

Also in the Klein Karoo is a painting of a swarm of bees amongst a group of dancing figures – the droning in the ears when in an altered state during a trance dance is recognised as the potent humming of bees (Rust & Van der Poll 2011). Here the bees are again depicted with red abdomens and white wings.

Why honeybees and robbing activity in rock art is more frequently encountered along the eastern seaboard could be because of a variety of reasons. Possibly the most important difference is that the eastern seaboard is much wetter and more rugged and thus honeybees are more prolific with many more and varied nesting sites available. In contrast, the fynbos and succulent Karoo of the western seaboard is far drier, with most honeybee nests located in outcrops of rocks or in the ground. At Buck krantz the depicted scene of the honey hunting can easily be visualized as occurring in the overhang – as with the antelope being chased over the cliff above the ‘cave’, but do single depictions of combs in the other caves, not always associated with other paintings, indicate a nest nearby and its ownership?

Selected references:

Anderson, G. (no date). Bushman Rock Art: South Africa. Art Publishers. 64pp.

Crane E. 1983. The Archaeology of Beekeeping. Duckworth, London. 360pp.

Crane, E. 2005. The rock art of honey hunters. Bee World 86(1): 11-13.

Guy, R.D. 1972. The honey hunters of southern Africa. Bee World 53(4): 159-166.

Lewis-Williams, D & Dowson, D. 1989. Images of power: understanding Bushman rock art. Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers.

Pager, H. 1971. Ndedema. Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria. 375pp.

Pager, H. 1973. Rock paintings in southern Africa showing bees and honey hunting. Bee World 54(2):   61-68.

Pager, H. 1974. The magico-religious importance of bees and honey for the rock painters and Bushmen of southern Africa. South African Bee Journal 46(6): 6-9.

Rust, R. & Van der Poll, J. 2011. Water, Stone and Legend: Rock Art of the Klein Karoo. Struik. 128pp.

Tribe, G.D. 2000. A Bushman painting of a honey-hunter in an Oudtshoorn cave which still contains honeybee nests in its walls. South African Bee Journal 72(2): 84-87.

Woodhouse, B. 1984. When Animals were People: A-Z of Animals of Southern Africa as the Bushmen saw and thought of them and as the camera sees them today. Chris van Rensburg Publications. 120pp.

Dr Geoff Tribe

Dr Geoff Tribe