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Sugarbag bark paintings

Sugarbag bark paintings

WARNING: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Natasha Fijn is a researcher who explores rich connections between people and culturally significant animals. Here, Natasha discusses two bark paintings from the National Museum's collection that relate to her research into human interactions with honeybees.

Sugarbag Dreaming bark painting
Sugarbag Dreaming, 1980s, Jimmy Wululu, Daygurrgurr clan, Gupapuyŋu language, 122 x 63.5 cm. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection, National Museum of Australia.© the artist or the artist’s estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2013. This image must not be reproduced in any form without permission.

In search of sugarbag

A bark painting from Central Arnhem Land entitled Sugarbag Dreaming by Jimmy Wululu reveals different layers of meaning surrounding sugarbag. Sugarbag not only refers to thick, dark, liquid honey. 'Sugarbag' is an all-encompassing term, incorporating everything related to honey, including stingless bees.

Within the National Museum of Australia's exhibition Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists, the bark painting Sugarbag Dreaming is displayed as a self-portrait of the artist.

As explained within the accompanying text beside the work, the particular meaning behind this design is an expression of the artist’s identity. Jimmy Wululu is part of the Yirritja moiety with the characteristic diamond-shaped design that is associated with it.

The painting immediately indicates the significance of sugarbag to the artist as one of his main clan totems.

The design also associates him with other elements within the same totemic complex, such as fire. This totemic design is painted on the chests of initiates during ceremony.

On another more functional, ecological level, the central pole represents the stringybark tree with a stingless bee nest in the hollowed out heart of the tree. The diamond shapes represent the cells of the bee’s nest and the different colours indicate whether the cells are empty, partially filled, or full. The bees are the lines of black dots, while the larvae are the white dots.

The repetitive pattern is not only visual but could also be thought of in an auditory sense, as the repetitive whirring of the wings of the bee, linking the bark painting with Sugarbag Dreaming songs and dances in ceremony.

Two sugarbag systems

The Yolngu world is divided into two separate moieties (or broad kinship groups): Dhuwa and Yirritja. Two types of stingless bee that are particularly significant to the Yolngu of Northeast Arnhem Land are the Yirritja birrkuda and the Dhuwa yarrpany.

Both sugarbag complexes have their own set of songs, dances, power names and sacred objects as they are derived from the essences of different ancestral beings.

Yirritja sugarbag

The Yirritja bee, called birrkuda, is described as the ‘cheeky bee’ due to it biting in defence. They do not sting as a European honeybee would but these ‘stingless’ bees still defend their nest vigorously from mammalian invasion by swarming onto the attacker and biting. Howard Morphy states:

The wild honey ancestor in Munyuku country consists of the whole complex of things associated with honey: the bees, the grubs [or larvae], the pollen, the honey, the nest and the trees. Fire is [also] part of the wild honey complex. (173).[1]
The hunters use fire to clear the ground while looking for the bees. It is associated with the time of year in August and September (Rarrandharr) when fires are lit and honey is ready to be collected. The association with fire is also due to the necessity of smoking out these bees to avoid their defensive bites. The Birrkuda wangarr, or ancestral being, is also linked with freshwater and floodwater. This is because this particular stingless bee is located in paperbark (Melaleuca) swamp habitat, where the bees obtain pollen from paperbark trees in flower.

Dhuwa sugarbag

One kind of Dhuwa sugarbag is referred to as yarrpany, or ‘long-nosed’, as the nest of this particular bee projects out from the stringybark tree in the form of an extended tubular entrance. Yolngu elders have a good knowledge of the internal structure of the Meliponidae nest and can label all the separate elements. This structure of the nest is often represented in cross-section within bark paintings featuring Sugarbag Dreaming.

'Yarrpany, Dhuwa Honey’ bark painting
Yarrpany (Dhuwa Honey), 1982, Robert Berrangu Wulaki Lang, Maningrida, Northern Territory, 98 x 54 cm. Maningrida Arts and Craft collection, National Museum of Australia. © the artist or the artist’s estate, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2013. This image must not be reproduced in any form without permission.

The Yarrpany (Dhuwa Honey) bark painting, also from Maningrida, in Central Arnhem Land by Robert Berrangu Wulaki Lang (pictured above), is part of the National Museum of Australia’s National Historical Collection. This painting depicts a cross-section view of hollowed out stringybark trees. A female honey ancestor holds a stone axe for chopping into stringybark trees containing sugarbag and a dilly bag on her back is for collecting the sugarbag. Blue tongue lizards (or dhamalingu) readily invade stingless bee nests in search of this nutritious food source and are also often located within hollow logs.

The nests themselves are represented within the tree trunks, with black circles indicating the entrance (or ‘mouth’) of the hive and wooden struts strengthening the interior of the hive. The cross-hatching indicates honey pots within the nest. It is interesting to note that one of the hollow logs, or stringy bark trees, is painted differently with prominent larvae (on the bottom right). The centre of the nest is the brood chamber where an individual bee is reared from egg to adult. In northeast Arnhem Land white dots represent larvae within the heart of the nest and can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the nurturing of children at the centre of a community.

Ancient meanings

The extraction of honey and other products from the nests of stingless bees is by no means new, as wax figurines have been dated from rock walls in Arnhem Land at over 4,000 years ago and hunting for stingless bee nests is evident from paintings on rock walls from the Mesolithic.

In Aboriginal Australian mythology, bees are connected with travel and are often associated with migration from one region to another. When swarming after disturbance stingless bees may fly off in different directions but readily form a new colony in another location. An undated (yet very old) rock painting from Prince Regent River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia depicts the structure of a hive: with an entrance, pollen pots, honey pots and wax plugs within the nest. A story relating to this rock art was recorded by Crawford and told by elder Albert Barunga at the cave site:

The bees separated, different ones went to different places. Some went towards the rock, and others went up the river ... Another one was not happy and kept going. He crossed over the Prince Regent and on the other side he found the place called Perulba and there he said: 'I’ll try and lie down', and he lay down and was contented ... That is the place he remained in, and he became painted on the cave from then until now (p. 118).[2]

These bees are believed to have originated at another rock art site: Larinjam caves at Secure Bay in the Northern Territory. The bees took flight, separated and travelled to the Perulba in Western Australia where they were painted as rock art. It is interesting to note that humans are thought to have migrated to Australia from New Guinea to the north and originally settled in these locations.

Searching for sugarbag

My research into the significance of stingless bees and sugarbag amongst Yolngu is based within a homeland community in northeast Arnhem Land. I include here an excerpt from my notes in the field in August 2012 and accompanying footage entitled Sugarbag Dreaming.

We pile out of the dusty four-wheel drive troop carrier and begin walking in separate groups of two or three, bare feet crunching through the dry grass. The only other sounds are occasional resonant tapping sounds from an axe testing whether a trunk is hollow; or when the women periodically call to each other to keep within earshot amongst the scattered stands of stringybark trees. It is easy, open walking through country, as the extended family group I came with care for the land by setting fire to the grass during the drier months, particularly at this time of year, sugarbag season. I observe while the women in their brightly coloured skirts with their young children or grandchildren look closely at the trunks of the trees and up into the canopy at the blue sky beyond, scanning for signs of the tiny black stingless bees. Today are good conditions for finding honey. If the conditions are too cool or windy the bees tend to stay in their hive, not venturing out to forage. We hear a yell in the distance indicating that a hive has been found and walk to the small, scraggly-looking tree. The teenager, who located the bees, begins to chop down the tree to get at the nest inside. Children hold onto their jars and containers in keen anticipation of the rich, sticky honey within the tree trunk. Once the women have opened up the hive, they do not only consume the liquid honey but collect everything with the beaten end of a stick: the wax, larvae, pollen and the odd entrapped stingless bee.

Sugarbag Dreaming video

This vignette and accompanying video segment illustrates a favourite activity of young and old, men, women and children in Northeast Arnhem Land: walking through the bush in search of the tiny 'wild, stingless bees' to extract their honey. A stingless bee nest is a complete meal for Yolngu not just a hit of glucose from liquid honey but an important carbohydrate with additional protein, fat, and essential minerals from the larvae.

Conclusion an ecological philosophy

Through a greater knowledge of the significance of sugarbag, encompassing stingless bees, eucalypts, flowers, pollen, fire and people themselves, we are able to gain a window into Aboriginal Australian ecological philosophy. Aboriginal Australians appreciate the significance of stingless bees as keystone species for pollinating plants and the bees’ interconnections with the land and the surrounding environment. Honey is not just a rich and tasty food source but is an intrinsic part of Aboriginal culture.

If stingless bee populations were to decline due to competition with the introduced honeybee, or through environmental factors such as habitat loss, it would not only affect species of plant that rely on the bees for pollination, or animals that rely on the bee’s nests as a nutritious food resource. If Yolngu were no longer able to search for sugarbag it would entail significant cultural loss, a loss of the knowledge and meaning behind the paintings, stories, and ceremony related to Sugarbag Dreaming across northern Australia.

About the author

Natasha Fijn

Natasha Fijn is a College of the Arts and Social Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australian National University.

Natasha's research combines visual anthropology and human-animal studies. She is interested in crosscultural perceptions and attitudes toward other animals; and the use of multimedia, particularly observational filmmaking, as an integral part of her research. Natasha is exploring connections between Aboriginal Australians and culturally significant animals in northeast Arnhem Land.

About the collection

The National Museum of Australia holds an extensive collection of bark paintings from Arnhem Land in Australia's subtropical north. This collection is the largest in the world, and includes over 2000 paintings. Most of these paintings were produced during a critical period in the history of the art of Arnhem Land and its peoples, from 1948 to 1988. The Second World War was a turning point, due to the bombing of Darwin and other parts of the northern coast. Anthropologists arrived after the war, and were followed by private and public collectors, to see the art of Arnhem Land, and to meet its creators and collect their work.


[1] Morphy, Howard, Ancestral Connections, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.

[2] Crawford was cited in: Crane, Eva, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, Routledge, New York, 1999.