Tag Archives: indian

June Bugs are Edible

It’s already the time of year where June bugs are flying to my porch lights, much to the glee of my cats, who enjoy these fun toys.

June bugs are not known widely as edible, but according to one or two sources, they were food for some California Indians.

Bear River Indians ate June bugs (Nomland 1938:111). They were roasted in a fire and eaten immediately (Nomland 1938:111).

June bugs / June beetles, specifically including the white-striped June beetle
(Scarabaeidae: Polyphylla crinita and P. spp.), were listed by Essig (1931) as insects eaten by the California Indians.


June beetle: Polyphylla sp.

Essig may have determined this based on Nomland’s (1938) ethnography of the Bear River Indians. That is the only other source I have found listing June bugs as food for the California Indians.

Unfortunately, neither source mentions whether the adults or grubs were eaten. Presumably, they refer to the adults since they are commonly encountered, whereas the grubs live underground feeding on roots.

I’m confident the grubs are edible also, as  related grubs in the scarab family, such as the rhinoceros beetle, are edible, and also live underground.

Essig, E.O. 1931. A history of entomology. The Macmillan Company, New York, NY.

Nomland, Gladys Ayer. 1938. Bear River ethnography. Anthropological Records 2(2):90-126. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

The Bear Doctor


The Bear Doctor was a powerful and deadly shaman feared by the Pomo, Yuki, and Miwok tribes of California Indians.

The bear doctors lived to kill for pleasure and would extort villages, forcing chiefs to pay them to leave their people in peace.

The bear doctor wore a suit of grizzly bear skin reinforced inside with a lining of hard wood sticks (snowbell), all over a suit of armor made of shells, making him virtually immune to arrows or other attacks. It contained water baskets inside, whose sloshing mimicked the sound of the viscera of a real bear. A white oak basketry helmet was fitted to the wearer’s head, and the bear’s head skin was secured over this. When worn, the bear doctor appeared, acted, and sounded just like a real grizzly bear. This suit was said to endow him with the supernatural strength and speed of a bear.

pomo bear doctor suit

















He was helped by male and female assistants, the first whom sang the songs or chants necessary to invoke the power of the bear suit as the shaman danced and as the suit was put on by the bear doctor with the help of the female assistant.

The weapons of the bear doctor were elk horn daggers, obsidian knives, and stone pestles. Sometimes he used a miniature bow that shot tiny “invisible” poisoned arrows. One common poison for arrows was rattlesnake venom, which caused even a tiny wound to rot away and masses of flesh to slough off, usually resulting in death.

Before attacking, the bear doctor stood unconcernedly near the path of his victim, with his back toward him until he was near, whereupon he suddenly whirled around and attacked. This was the method of attack of a real bear.

The bear doctors formed a league together, training apprentices and sometimes working in concert to attack and kill.

For more info see “Pomo Bear Doctors” by S.A. Barrett, 1917.

Slugs as food

I’ve been really sluggish to post this summer, so I’m posting about slugs!

Did you know there is (or at least was) an annual banana slug festival including a cookoff competition in California? It was held at Russian River.

The banana slug is the mascot of UC Santa Cruz! It is a quite large yellow slug, found in the redwood forest and surrounding coastal areas of California and Oregon. This was probably the species eaten by the below-mentioned California Indian tribes.

Lolangkok Sinkyone ate slugs. First, a slender stick was thrust through the head to hold the slug. Then, it’s belly was slit open lengthwise to remove the dark insides. It was then dried. Before it was eaten, it was roasted in hot ashes (Baumhoff 1958:195).

Slugs found in the woods were eaten by the Pomo, usually in the rainy season. They were pierced with a hazel twig, being strung on a row and spit-roasted over a fire (Gifford 1987:20).

The banana slug (Ariolimax) was eaten as a starvation food by the Yurok and Karok (Lightfoot and Parrish 2009).

The Yuki, neighbors to the above-mentioned tribes, and living in areas where the banana slug was common, did not eat slugs at all (Foster 1944:167).


Baumhoff, Martin A. 1958. California Athabascan groups. Anthropological Records 16 (5):162-230. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Foster, George M. 1944. A summary of Yuki culture. Anthropological Records 5 (3):155-244. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Gifford, E. W. 1967. Ethnographic notes on the Southwestern Pomo. Anthropological Records 25. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Lightfoot, K.G. and O. Parrish. 2009. California Indians and their environment: an introduction. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Elderberry Pipes

Elderberry Pipes

Elderberry (Sambucus sp.) is a fantastic tree to make pipes from. (It also has edible flowers, berries, and many other uses). It’s easy to make pipes from elderberry because it’s inner pith (the central tissue of a large woody stem) is very soft and spongy. To make a pipe, the California Indians would ram the pith of sections of elderberry sticks with sharpened, fire-hardened sticks of a hard wood such as mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides). Such simple tubes of elderberry were packed with tobacco and smoked, or formed the stem of a pipe having a bowl of stone or clay.

I have not read of any Indians making pipes like mine above. I cut sticks in sections just behind a right angle bend, and on the other side of the fork, left room for the pipe stem. So after I formed a tube from the main length, I carved out a bowl from the nub of the fork, and carefully connected the bottom of the bowl to the tube with a thin tube I drilled perpendicular to the first tube. I used a long flathead screwdriver that I sharpened at the tip for the initial drilling, then cleaned out the tubes with a round bastard file. I stained the pipes with linseed oil to protect them. The staining really brings out the beautiful patterns left on the inner bark by bark beetles.

I used only dead, downed wood, so there was no need to dry or season the wood, nor cut any live tissue. The species in the SF Bay Area is Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea. The first few uses, I smoked plentiful material and didn’t inhale, in order to “cure” the bowl; leaving it thoroughly burnt inside so future smokes don’t have me inhaling elderberry wood smoke. (The pic shows them freshly cut; after curing the bowls are charred black).

I have been using such pipes for smoking herbal blends for years and prefer them (for functionality) any other I’ve ever owned. I’ve made about six of all sizes. They each took about 30 minutes total work time.

Sugar Pine Tree Uses of the California Indians

Pinus lambertiana Dougl. – Sugar Pine

The sugar pine is a titan amongst its august congeners. It is the tallest (70′-200′) and heaviest pine species in the world. It also has the longest pine cones in the world, reaching over two feet long.

It’s range is thick in California and Oregon in the Sierras (reaching Carson City, NV), Northern California mountains, and the Cascades. It’s also found in the coast range of Big Sur, the mountains of Southern California, and into Baja California. Its preferred habitat is slopes in yellow pine forest and red fir forest (Calflora.org). It occurs from 390-9710 ft (Calflora.org), but is more common at higher elevations, about 2500-9000 ft. (Goodrich et al. 1980).

Throughout its range, Indian tribes found the sugar pine tree very useful, even for a pine tree, which are generally species with many edible parts and uses.

The most important resource this species provided were its seeds / pine nuts. These were gathered in the summer (Goodrich et al. 1980). When gathered in sufficient quantity, the large seeds from the long cones are as highly esteemed as those from the Digger pine, Pinus sabiniana (Chesnut 1902, Dixon 1905, Dixon 1907). Sugar pine nuts were known to be eaten by Mendocino area Indians, Northern Maidu, Shasta, and Kashaya Pomo (Chesnut 1902, Dixon 1905, Dixon 1907, Goodrich et al. 1980). The nuts were eaten fresh or dried for winter (Goodrich et al. 1980). Stored nuts were eaten whole or pounded into a flour and mixed with pinole, a blend of dried and powdered grains and small seeds (Goodrich et al. 1980).

To remove cones from a high tree limb, the Kashaya Pomo used a deer antler lashed to the end of a straight pole (Goodrich et al. 1980). As with other pine species, trees were probably also climbed to cut down branches with cones and shake down cones, in addition to simply picking off the ground.

The pine nuts were steamed in an earth oven by the Shasta (Dixon 1907). A hole was dug, a fire was burned inside it to heat a layer of rocks at the bottom, then the coals and ashes were raked out (Dixon 1907). Then the pine nuts, wrapped in leaves, were placed on the hot rocks (Dixon 1907). Then water was poured in, more hot rocks placed on top, and the whole covered with earth, allowing the oven to steam for several hours (Dixon 1907). The nuts were then dried and stored (Dixon 1907). When wanted to eat, the nuts were pounded fine, winnowed, and made into small cakes (Dixon 1907). Often powdered pine nuts were mixed with powdered salmon (Dixon 1907).

The sap of sugar pine tastes sweet; that is what gave the tree its common name. The sap was eaten and chewed as gum or candy by the Northern Maidu (Dixon 1905), Shasta (Dixon 1907), Kashaya Pomo (Goodrich et al. 1980), and Wintu (Jacknis 2004). It was gathered from spring through fall (Goodrich et al. 1980).

One form of this sap was valued as a medicine. The sugary exudation on partially burned bases of trees was valued for cathartic properties (Chesnut 1902). The sap was also used in making whistles (Goodrich et al. 1980), forming the crucial seal for generating sound. Just as other pine trees, its sap had many different uses as a sealant or mastic, such as hafting obsidian blades to wood handles or arrowheads to a shaft.

Although such a use for this particular species goes unmentioned in ethnographies I have studied so far, the inner bark of all pine trees is edible, and furnishes a easily-gathered, calorie-rich food.

Sugar pine logs were used by the Shasta for making dugout, square-ended canoes (Dixon 1907).

Like many other pine species, the sugar pine boughs and needles were commonly used to cover the floors of dwellings and pad beds (Barrett and Gifford 1951). However, Sugar pine boughs were specifically excluded from use as thatching, despite boughs of other pine tree species being commonly used for thatching (Barrett and Gifford 1951). I can only conjecture a higher ratio of sugar to terpene content compared to other pines makes the sugar pine needles more susceptible to decay, making it inferior thatching material.

This tree was also sometimes host to the Pandora moth (Carolin and Knopf 1968). The Pandora moth caterpillar was a crucial, abundant food of the Paiute and other Sierra Indians.


Barrett, S.A. and E.W. Gifford. 1951. Miwok houses. In The California Indians: a source book. Edited by R.F. Heizer and M.A. Whipple.

Carolin, V.M. Jr. and J.A.E. Knopf. 1968. The pandora moth. USDA Forest Service Forest Pest Leaflet 114: 1-7.

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Dixon, Roland. B. 1907. The Shasta. American Museum of Natural History Bulletin 17(5).

Goodrich, J., Lawson, C., and Lawson, V. P. 1980. Kashaya Pomo plants. American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.

Jacknis, Ira J (ed.). 2004. Food in California Indian culture. Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

Ants as Native Californian Cuisine

California Indians caught ants by spreading a damp skin or fresh-peeled bark over ant hills, which immediately attracted ants to the surface (Sutton 1988). When the skin or bark was covered with ants, it was carefully removed and shaken into a container where they were confined until dead, and then they were sun-dried and stored (Bodenheimer 1951).

The Nisenan and Achumawi were known to eat ants (Olmsted and Stewart 1978, Wilson and Towne 1978). Mono Lake Paiute ate the larvae of ants (Sutton 1988). Ant eggs, pupae, larvae, and adults are all edible and eaten by many aboriginal cultures worldwide (Bodenheimer 1951), thus it is likely the California Indians ate all these life stages.

Surprise Valley Paiute gathered ants “early in the morning when they were all bunched on the top of the hill” (Sutton 1988). Since ants carry their pupae to the top of the mound in the morning when the sun hits it, this may suggest the Paiute were aware of this activity and exploited it to easily collect the pupae, which are probably the preferred ant food. Alternatively, the gathering of ants was conducted in the early morning since they were less active then. Ants were frequently collected during the frozen winter (Sutton 1988), perhaps for the same reason, or since other food was scarce at the time.

Some Indians dug out ants, larvae, and pupae (the latter two being probably erroneously called eggs), and winnowed them to boil alone or with other foods (Sutton 1988). Ants were sometimes ground into flour for storage (Sutton 1988). Ants were preferred even to grasshoppers by the Northern Paiute since they contained more fat (Sutton 1988). Ants were killed with live coals then eaten dry, or stored to later thicken soups (Sutton 1988).

The larvae and adults of carpenter ants (Camponotus spp) were enjoyed by California Indians, according to John Muir (1972). The heads of the adults were bitten off and spat out and the “tickly acid body” eaten with enjoyment (Muir 1972). Carpenter ants were dug out of their nest early in the morning when it was still cold by the Western Shoshone (Sutton 1988), perhaps allowing gathering with fewer stings. The ants were winnowed from the soil with a basket, killed with hot coals in a parching tray, and boiled into a mush (Sutton 1988). These ants are very large: probably the reason the Indians preferred them. However, their nests harbor fewer individuals than those of smaller ants.

A few weeks ago, I collected a few dozen carpenter ant workers and drones. I broke apart the their wood log nest, and put down wet paper towels over the swarm, which they clung to, biting. I then flicked them off the paper towels into a cooler with a few inches of cold water, where they drowned or were cooled into immobility. I fried them in a pan with a few drops of oil on medium for about a minute, then ate them whole and plain. The workers have a great lime flavor and a nice crunch. The drones don’t have that zingy flavor (lacking formic acid glands and stingers), but taste mild and nutty. Overall, they were a great snack that was easy to collect.

Honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus spp.) are found in the deserts of Southern California, and are known to have been eaten by Southwestern US Indians and Mexican Indians (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). Specialized “nurse” or “replete” workers of this ant, living in special chambers of the nest, store “honey,” or a very sweet solution, in their greatly engorged abdomens to regurgitate to other ants in times of famine (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). These nurse ants were collected by Indians and eaten or alcohol or medicine (Bodenheimer 1951). I wouldn’t try to go dig up a nest without some serious expertise on their nest structure though. One professional entomologist in Arizona spent 12 hours digging an 8 foot trench in the desert to get just a few handfuls of repletes! If anything, this testifies to the supreme ecological knowledge of hunter-gatherers, especially regarding the hymenopterous (bees, wasps, and ants) nesting and reproductive biology.


Bodenheimer, F.S. 1951. Insects as human food. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Muir, J. 1972. My first summer in the Sierra. Norman S. Berg, Publisher, Sellanraa, GA.

Olmsted, D.L. and O.C. Stewart. 1978. Achumawi. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 228. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Sutton, M.Q. 1988. Insects as food: aboriginal entomophagy in the Great Basin. Ballena Press anthropological papers: no. 33.

Wilson, N.L. and A.H. Towne. 1978. Nisenan. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 390. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

The Make and Use of Redwood Canoes by the Yurok Tribe

Fallen redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) logs were hollowed with fire to form canoes by Pacific coast Indians of northwestern California (e.g. Yurok) that were sold to other tribes (Powers 1877, Chesnut 1902). Redwood trunks for canoes were gathered by the Yurok from the bar across the mouth of the Lower Klamath, or all along the coast where redwoods grow (Powers 1877). Redwood (and it’s relatives such as bald cypress) is known for having insect-repellant wood. It is also quite soft and easy to carve.

They were burned by the Yurok to suitable lengths, (one made in 1968 was 18 ft long x 3.5 ft wide x 1.5 ft deep) and the ends kept blunt rather than pointed (Powers 1877). To burn them into shape, pitch was spread on the area of wood to be burned, and when it was burned sufficiently deep, a piece of raw bark was clapped upon the burning area to extinguish it (Powers 1877). By this method, and with scraping and polishing with stones, the sides and ends were reduced to be very thin and smooth, with appreciable symmetry and elegance (Powers 1877). At the stern, a small, neat bracket was burned and polished out to serve as a seat (Powers 1877). Before metal tools, this work was completed by two Indians in five or six months (Powers 1877).

Yurok man paddling traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.firstpeople.us/canoe/yurok-in-the-shadow.html

Yurok man paddling traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.firstpeople.us/canoe/yurok-in-the-shadow.html

Such a canoe could carry five tons (Powers 1877). They were used for shooting dangerous rapids and surf, in sea during stormy weather, and regularly traveling the 44 mile round-trip from the Yurok village to Crescent City to bring back merchandise (Powers 1877). For collecting shellfish, they were used to go to small offshore islands a mile distant, upon which they jumped from their canoes despite dangerous rocks and surf (Powers 1877).



To keep the canoes from cracking in the sun, when not in use, they were turned upside down on the sandy beach and their bottoms were cleared of adhering barnacles, seaweed, and other matter by singing with burning reeds or bundles of sticks to loosen the pitch and scrape off the matter, i.e., they were breamed (Powers 1877). Or they were hauled into damp and shady coves, or thickly covered with leaves and brushwood (Powers 1877). If they become cracked, holes were bored through the wood on both sides next to the crack with a deer antler, and withes were passed through these holes, being tightened by twisting them with sticks (like a tourniquet), closing the cracks better than caulking (Powers 1877).

They are still made by the Yurok in our age, mainly for ceremonial use and display, but sometimes for regular use. One is on display at the Thomas H. Kuchel visitor center at Redwood National Park. See this Redwood National Park handout for a little more info: http://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/upload/yurok%20canoe.pdf

Modern Yurok making traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/Battling-Upstream-3288175.php#photo-2436580

Modern Yurok making traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/Battling-Upstream-3288175.php#photo-2436580


Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Powers, S. 1877. Tribes of California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Grasshopper Hunting Methods of American Indians

Most American Indians ate grasshoppers (plus crickets and katydids: the orthoptera) as an integral part of their diet, collecting vast quantities in the summer, drying them and grinding them into flour to store for the winter.

They had many methods of gathering and trapping grasshoppers. The most simple gathering method was to merely pick them off vegetation during the early morning, when it was too cool for them to fly or jump off quickly.

At the most complex end of the spectrum, entire villages assembled to prepare pits and perform circle or or group drive hunts, surrounding a field and scaring grasshoppers inward simultaneously to drive the grasshoppers into the central pits. There were many variations on this method, from some Indians using fire to either drive the grasshoppers or kill them at the end, to driving them in a line towards a creek, where they were collected downstream in basket traps.

See Cricket Hunting Method of Nevada Indians for another example of a drive hunt.

One basic type of the circle hunt method was performed by the Shoshone Indians of the Western US (including California, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming): A hole was dug in the center of a field, 10-12 ft deep by 4-5 ft diameter. The 4-5 acre field was surrounded with people standing about twenty feet apart, armed with long branches of Artemisia (i.e. wormwood; a pungent, insect-repelling herb/shrub), with which they beat the ground and vegetation while slowly pushing them towards the hole in the center (Chittenden and Richardson 1905). Often 3-4 acres was sufficient to fill the hole. (Chittenden and Richardson 1905).

Circle drive hunt method of Shoshone Indians to trap vast amounts of grasshoppers for food. Illustration by C. Harp.

Circle drive hunt method of Shoshone Indians to trap vast amounts of grasshoppers for food. Illustration by C. Harp.


Chittenden, H.M. and A.D. Richardson. 1905. Life, letters and travels of Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, S.J., 1801-1873. Harper, New York, NY.

New Map of Old North America Shows Indian Tribal Nations; what causes variation in tribe density?

Aaron Carapella has compiled all the original (self-identified) names of the American Indians on a map showing the locations of their original homes. It immediately gives a sense of the extent and variety of Indians occupying the continent.

See the full story here: The Map of Native American Tribes You’ve Never Seen Before

Or go straight to the PDF file of the map: Tribal_Nations_Map_of North America

There is a separate map for Mexico you can find in the article.


Ethnoecological hypotheses for high density of Indian tribes and populations in California and the coastal Pacific Northwest:

Like other similar maps produced before (which usually show the names colonists gave to Indians, such as “Costanoan” for SF Bay Area Indians, which just means inhabiting the coast), another remarkable feature is the high diversity of tribes in California, as well as the Pacific Coast. I’d attribute this high diversity, which goes along with notably large original populations (Heizer and Elsasser 1980), to the high diversity and productivity of ecosystems in these regions.

by Aaron Carapella

Detail of Tribal Nations map showing California and most of Nevada. Full map by Aaron Carapella

The unit of land-ownership for the American Indians was a watershed (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). Indian tribes would own both sides of a creek or river, and the mountains behind them with their tributaries, ending at the ridgetops that began another tribe’s territory (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). The wrinkled topography, caused by the geologic uplift from the subduction of the Pacific plate along the coast, has led to many distinct watersheds concentrated in a small area in California and the Pacific Northwest coast.

Thus the high density of tribes may be simply a result of the division of tribal groups by the high density of watersheds. If one looks at a map of the watersheds, the tribes do seem to be at least partly corresponding to different watersheds. If the names map had higher resolution, reflecting how each of these tribes divided into smaller groups and tribelets, this hypothesis would probably be better supported.

Interestingly, larger tribe groups tend to mirror the hierarchical structure of the watersheds, claiming large watersheds (different colors in the below map), and their constituent tribes claiming smaller watersheds within (different shades of one color in the below map).


Another, related reason for the high density of tribal names and population size is the ecology of the area. The massive trees of the coastal Pacific Northwest, along with their lush understories, forming specialized assemblages in every nook and cranny of the convoluted topography, gives rise to ecosystems with a huge variety and abundance of plant and animal life, next to ecosystems that are entirely different yet close-by. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest, relying upon these profuse plants and animals, therefore did not have to harvest from a large area of land to meet their needs, but could live in peace with close neighbors and at high population densities without risk of hunger.

Supporting this latter hypothesis is the recent synthetic finding of Ethnobotanists is that regions of high biological diversity strongly correlate with regions of highest linguistic and cultural diversity (Carlson and Maffi 2004, Nolan and Turner 2011).

A final alternative hypothesis is simply that by the time ethnographies were conducted to record all the names of the tribes, the areas with fewer tribal names had already been decimated, leaving few behind to have their names recorded. Although California and the west coast was indeed some of the last territory to be settled and the Indians rounded up and exterminated, this hypothesis is refutable by comparing to the east coast.

The eastern coast, the first areas to be settled and the Indians persecuted, has a similarly high density of tribal names, though somewhat more dispersed or clumped. Note also Florida and along the southeast coast there is a rather high density of tribes, and that these areas have remarkably high diversity of plant life, though are not very mountainous. These patterns, along with the general tendency for high tribal name density on the map to correlate well with mountainous areas and/or areas of high plant diversity, lends support to the watershed and/or ecological diversity hypotheses I gave above.

Further support of these hypotheses can be seen in the areas of low density of tribal names. The mountainous eastern Rockies, though dense with watersheds, have very little water. These deserts and dry forests have low plant diversity, and accordingly seem to support few tribes, at presumably low population densities. Furthermore, the midwest, the belt from Canada to Texas about two states wide, consists of flat grasslands; areas with low density of watersheds and little environmental heterogeneity. Despite its high soil fertility and productivity of grazing animals, predictably, this area also has low density of tribal names, and presumably, Indian populations. Similarly, in the far north, where boreal forest, tundra, or arctic ecosystems predominate, there is a low density of tribal names, and presumably populations, since these ecosystems are very homogenous, with low plant diversity and low productivity of plant energy.

To put it (somewhat) simply, humans are animals too, and just as how animal diversity (at the levels of genotypes, populations, and species) is directly positively related to plant diversity and environmental heterogeneity, so is the diversity of Homo sapiens (here presumably at the genotypic, and population / cultural levels) directly positively related to plant diversity and environmental heterogeneity (namely density of watersheds).



Carlson, T. and L. Maffi (eds.). 2004. Ethnobotany and conservation of biocultural diversity. Advances in economic botany Vol. 15. Botanical Garden Press, New York, NY.

Heizer, Robert F. and Albert B. Elsasser. 1980. The natural world of the California Indians. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Nolan, J. M. and N. J. Turner. Ethnobotany: the study of people-plant relationships. In Anderson, E. N., D. M. Pearsall, E. S. Hunn, and N. J. Turner (eds.). 2011. Ethnobiology. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ.

Bug Honeydew was a Sweet Treat for California Indians

Certain insects in the true bug order are specialized to only feed on plant sap, including all aphids (Aphidae) and scales (Coccidae), and most of the planthoppers, leafhoppers, froghoppers, and cicadas (Hemiptera:Auchenorrhyncha aka Homoptera). These insects have syringe-like mouthparts to pierce the sap and/or water-conducting vessels of leaves, veins, stems, and fruits. Their adaptation to their extremely watery diet has also given rise to a very long intestinal tract with which they can absorb most of the nutrients of the sap before it passes out. But this still isn’t enough to absorb the sap’s sugars and other nutrients completely, so their frass (insect excrement) is very sweet.

A) shows an aphid piercing plant tissue with its syringe-like mouthpart B) shows how this stylet pierces a single cell (in this case making it ideal for sampling cell contents for an experiment by a plant physiologist) Credit: http://5e.plantphys.net/article.php?ch=t&id=136

This sugar-rich exudation of these insects is called “honeydew” or formerly, “Indian honey.” You may have noticed this phenomenon if you’ve parked your car under a tree infested with aphids, leaving the car and pavement below covered in a sticky clear film. It can also be noted on trees that have sooty mold growing on their lower leaves, often to the point of blackening them almost completely. The sooty mold grows on the honeydew medium. Honeydew is produced by very many species of insects on many species of plants, but is produced in most abundance by Aphids on trees.


black-margined aphids and honeydew (shiny spots) on a pecan leaf. Credit: http://northernpecans.blogspot.com/2013/09/black-margined-aphids-coat-pecan-leaves.html

[As an interesting aside, many species of ants eat the honeydew of sap-feeders who receive in exchange protection by the ants.]


Black ant feeding on aphid honeydew. Note the ant stroking the aphid’s back, which encourages aphids to secrete honeydew. Credit: http://mattcolephotography.blogspot.com/2011/09/ants-and-aphids.html

Honeydew was one of the few sugary foods known to the American Indians. Others were of course honey, and in some deserts of the US southwest, honeypot ants, which have specialized workers that fill their abdomens with a sugary solution to form a sort of food storage to make it through lean times. However, honey was very limited in supply until the introduction of the European honey bee since native bees produce very little honey (Essig 1931). And honeypot ants are quite limited in distribution and take extensive digging to collect a small amount of honeypots.

So effectively, honeydew was the only sweet food known to California Indians, and was therefore highly prized and collected with zeal.

Many different tribes of Indians used honeydew as a edible treat, and had various methods of collecting this nectar:

– In arid regions, honeydew is especially abundant on willows (Salix) growing along streams and on and under many shrubs, where it dried, adhered, and was collected (Essig 1931).

– In southeastern California, the Tübatulabal and Paiute collected honeydew deposited by aphids on reed or cane (Jacknis 2004).

– The Paiute collected honeydew on reed (Phragmites) by beating the dried honeydew into a basket, making it into a ball which they later softened by a fire and ate like candy (Jacknis 2004).

– The Tübatulabal cut, flayed, and dried common reed [Phragmites australis (Cav.) Steudel], beat off honeydew crystals (onto a hide or the like), winnowed out the debris, and cooked it into a stiff dough with cold water (Smith 1978, Jacknis 2004). When this dough dried, it formed a hard loaf from which lumps were broken off to eat with chia (Salvia columbariae Benth.) or acorn and piñon pine (Pinus edulis Engelm.) seed gruel (Smith 1978, Jacknis 2004).

– The Yavapai and Papago picked and washed off honeydew from cane and willow, boiled it and allowed it to congeal into a sweet whitish loaf (Gifford 1936).

– Honeydew was especially abundant on the leaves and young stems of a common species of willow in the Yavapai territory on Date Creek (Gifford 1936). The branches with honeydew were broken off and stirred into water to make a refreshing drink (Gifford 1936).

– Honeydew was stored by the Paiute using a special shallow basket made of tule (Sutton 1995).

– The mealy plum aphid, Hyalopterus pruni (Geoffroy), although only introduced around 1879 from the Mediterranean region, was one species whose honeydew was eaten by the Indians (Heizer and Elsasser 1980).

The California Bay Laurel is one very common local species in the Bay Area that is often covered with aphid honeydew. Its leaves are edible (and very flavorful), so it has potential as a source of collecting local honeydew. In the right season, I will try to dry branches with a fresh layer of honeydew to beat off, or perhaps dip into water  to dissolve it.


Essig, E.O. 1931. A history of entomology. The Macmillan Company, New York, NY.

Gifford, E.W. 1936. Northeastern and western Yavapai. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 34(4):268.

Heizer, R.F. and A.B. Elsasser. 1980. The natural world of California Indians. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Jacknis, I. 2004. Notes toward a culinary anthropology of Native California. In Food in California Indian culture. ed. Jacknis, I. Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, CA.

Smith, C.R. 1978. Tubatulabal. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 444. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.