Use of Insects by Australian Aborigines

For more than 40,000 years before European navigators visited the shores of the Great South Land, Aborigines occupied Australia, including its arid deserts, tropical rainforests, coastal plains, mountains, and especially its major river systems. Estimates by anthropologists put the population of Australian Aborigines before 1770 at more than 300,000. They spoke 500 different languages grouped in thirty-one related language families.

Aborigines were completely at home in their surroundings and had no trouble “living off the land.” This was mainly because of their intimate knowledge of the topography and natural resources of their tribal territories, and their complete understanding of the habits of the animals they hunted. The Australian aborigines extensively used insects from their surroundings as food, medicine, and as part of their cultural beliefs. However, most data concerning the use of insects by Australian Aborigines occur as scattered references in various anthropological, gastronomical, and pharmaceutical sources. This article highlights the use of insects by the Australian Aborigines.

Insects have been consumed as food in many parts of the world, and insects consumed directly as food was probably the most important use of insects to the Australian Aborigines. An interesting example of mass harvesting of edible insects is the moth feasts that occurred in the Bogong mountains of New South Wales. The Bogong moth, Agrotis infusa, aestivated in large numbers every year in rock shelters of these mountains. From November to January, hundreds of Aborigines from different tribes would gather for huge feasts on these adult moths. Rock crevices were covered with layers of these moths, which were collected by dislodging and then collecting the moths from the cave of crevice floor. Moths were then cooked in sand and stirred in hot ashes, which singed off the wings and legs. Moths were then sifted on a net to remove their heads. In this state, they were generally eaten, although sometimes they were ground into a paste and made into cakes. As a food, the Bogong moth was rich in fat, with the average fat content of the male’s abdomens exceeding sixty-one percent and of females, fifty-one percent of their dry weight.

Another lepidopteran that was considered a food delicacy by the Aborigines was the witchety grub. Although different source suggest different names for this insect, the larvae of (Xyleutes leucomochla Turn) is the true witchety grub of the Aborigines. Witchety grubs (larvae) are found in the roots of Acacia bushes, commonly known as the witchety bush in central Australia. These grubs were the most important insect food of the desert and were a much values staple in the diet of the Aborigines-especially women and children. Men also loved the grubs but would seldom dig them. The grubs were collected by digging up the roots and chopping them up to obtain the grubs within. The grubs can be eaten raw or can be cooked in ashes. Cooking causes the grub to swell and their skins to stiffen. Cooked witchety grubs frequently have been likened in taste to almonds. The larvae are rich in calories, protein, and fat. Ten large grubs are sufficient to provide the daily needs of an adult.

Although the Aboriginal diet was generally low in sugar, honeypot ants were a highly valued food that provided a source of sugar for the Aborigines of central Australia. Workers of the honeypot ant (Melophorus bagoti Lubbock and Campanoyus spp.) gather honeydew from scale insects and psyllids, and feed it to other workers, which become mere nectar storage vessel with greatly enlarged abdomens. The helpless replete ants, which regurgitate some of the nectar when solicited by other workers, are kept safe in deep underground galleries. The ants were obtained by scraping the surface of the ground to find the vertical shaft of the nest that led down to horizontal chambers where the honeypot ants were located. Vertical shafts may be dug down to almost two meters.

Another popular source of sugar in the aborigine’s diet was the “honeybag” (hive) of stingless native bees (Trigona spp.). To locate the honeybag, the Aborigines caught a bee feeding on pollen, and after attaching to it a leaf or petal by means of sticky juices of certain plants, let it go. The bee would fly straight to the hive and the item it was carrying not only would make it easy to see, but would result in its flight being lower and slower, thus, it was easily followed by the hunter. Also, when looking for honey, Aborigines watched for small black lizards, which often lived in honey trees and fed upon the bees as they returned to the hive. To obtain the honeybag, a tree could be cut down or, if the tree were large, a hole could be cut in the tree under the hive. A stick could then be poked into the hive and stirred about until the honey ran down the stick into a bark basket.

Besides being consumed directly as food, insects served the Aborigines in other diverse ways. Many classic myths, legends, and beliefs are related to insects and numerous fables about insects occur in the anthropological literature of the Australian Aborigine. These fascinating fables often had moral connotations and were helpful to the Aborigine in explaining the physical environment.

Several aboriginal fables exist; One story describes how giant men, in an early age, discovered the secrets of finding bee honeybags. The giant men passed these secrets on to the Aboriginal culture. Another story tells a perfect example of transformation- An Aborigine man and his son were walking through the outback, and the son got sick. To protect his son, the father built a shelter and then went away to find food, which would have taken several days. On his return to the shelter, he found that his son was gone. He looked everywhere for his son but could not find him. As the father leaned against a tree in despair, he looked up and saw a cocoon and a pupa in the branches of the tree. The man assumed that the gods saved his son by turning him into a pupa. The cocoon of the pupa represents the shelter he built for his son. This story has been passed down for hundreds of years and is one that helps to explain the natural environment.

Anothe myth tells of lice from mythical men becoming stones in rock holes. Should an Aborigine wish to punish an enemy, he would visit the rock holes, and cause lice to infest the hair of his enemy by chanting and rubbing stones together.

Insects and their products also were used frequently in Aboriginal art. Limonite oxide from ants’ nests was used for a yellow pigment in paintings; beeswax was shaped into ritual objects and human figures for sorcery and love magic; and insects themselves were depicted in cave paintings. Interestingly, insects especially termites, also have been reported to cause extreme damage to Aboriginal cave paintings. Insects and their products often are employed in folk healing and several examples of Aboriginal uses of insects for medicinal purposes are given at the end of this paper.

The widespread use of insects described in this article refers primarily to historical uses rather than contemporary use by the Australian aborigine. Aborigines have been drawn progressively into a money-commodity economy. One result of this is that they have come to rely more and more on industrially produced foods. The Aboriginal population today numbers about 160,000, with many located in the northern parts of Australia or in rural centers. About two-thirds of the Aborigines now live in cities and have adopted suburban life-style; However, even today in Australia, insects still are depicted frequently in contemporary Aboriginal art, which is sold to tourists who have no understanding of the rich and varied historical association of Aborigines with insects.

Bogong moth Noctuidae Adult moth used as food.
Bush cockroach Blattidae Local anesthetic.
Green tree ant Formicidae Used to prepare a refreshing drink, cure headaches, and as a cold remedy, as an antiseptic and expectorant.
Honeypot ant Formicidae Worker ants used as food.
Lerp insect Psyllidae Lerp (manna-like substance) was sugar source used directly as food and also made into drinks.
Processionary caterpillar Notodontidae Silk bag made by gregarious larvae used as a protective dressing for wounds.
Sugarbag honey bees Apidae Hive (sugarbag) of native bees consumed for food and honey used as medicine to “clean their guts out”
Termites Termitidae Didjeridu (wind instrument) made from tree limbs hollowed out by termites and termites used as food and termitaria used for absorbent antidiarrheal agent.
Witchety grub Cossidae Fat-rich larvae used as food and crushed to provide a protective covering for wounds and burns.