Bees play a vital part in contributing to the ecosystem that allows a diverse number of different species to co-exist. There are over 250 species of bees in Britain most of which are solitary bees – they don’t have a Queen – and they pollinate around 80% of wildflowers in Europe. In 2016, it was estimated that the contribution of bee pollination to food production for human consumption was in the range of 235 – 577 billion US dollars.

When Honeybees find a good pollen or nectar source, they return to the hive and perform the ‘waggle dance’ to tell other workers where to go – each bee only produces about one and half teaspoons of honey in their life. Bees can also see the colour purple better than any other flower…

 

The harvesting of honey can be traced as far back as the Mesolithic period (8000-6000BC) – these rock paintings can be found at Cueva de la Arana in Spain and show a woman harvesting honey from bees on a cliff face.

Mesolithic Cave Drawings   Source: Planet Bee

It is thought the Romans introduced beekeeping to Britain and during the Medieval period, many abbeys and monasteries kept bees – beeswax was highly prized for candles while fermented honey was used to make alcoholic mead as well as syrups and preserves.

Honey was also used for medicinal purposes: honey and betony helped digestion, honey and garlic eased pain while pure honey was used to soften rough skin and as a cosmetic.

This Bestiary shows bees flying in and out of a hive and was made in Northern England in the early 13th century. It is a copy of the Worksop Bestiary which was created in possibly Lincoln or York c1185

Bestiary, early 13th century. Copyright: British Library

Almost all medieval honey was liquid and was transported in cisterns and barrels to be bought and sold in markets. It was also used in the payment of rent – in 1254, 12 gallons of honey was included in the rent that Geoffrey of Bagshot paid the Abbot of Chertsey.

Marian Hanging by Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury 1570-1585 Copyright: V&A Museum

Whilst prisoner at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, Mary Queen of Scots and her captor, Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury (better known as Bess of Hardwick) created these tapestries. Made up of individual panels of canvas and depicting various plants, birds, animals and fish, they are known as the ‘Marian Hanging’, and are on permanent loan to Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.

Rev Charles Butler, Vicar of Wooton St Lawrence near Basingstoke is sometimes called the father of English Beekeeping. He was one of the first scholars to theorise that bees were led by a Queen rather than a King-bee and in The Feminin Monarchie, first published in 1609, Butler describes how bees collect ‘de nectar’.

The Femine Monarchie or The Histori of Bee’s by Charles Butler, 1634

Although the following excerpt from Butler’s book includes a wonderful description of how he believed bees store nectar, it also gives us an insight into the dialect of seventeenth century England. Butler believed that the vagaries of English spelling could be solved by using a phonetic alphabet and the 1634 edition of the book is printed using this method: ‘But de greatest plenty of de purest Nectar comet from aboov: wie Allmighty God don’t miraculously destil out of de Aier…De Nectar or liquid Hooni, de Bee’s gader wit deir tungs: wenc dey let it down into deir bottels, wie are witin dem, like unto bladders: eae of dem wil hold a drop at onc. Yee may see deir little bellis strut wit al…Des bottels, as soon as dey coom home, dey empty into deir cels’.

Early hives were skeps – woven wicker and later coiled straw – often placed individually in a recess in a stone or brick wall. They were used up to the 20th century in Britain and were often lined with lime and cow-dung to keep them warm and draught-free, and covered to keep the rain out. This seventeenth century bee bole is at Packwood House in Warwickshire.

Packwood House, Warwickshire

In September, 1653, Mr William Mewe, Minister of Easlington in Gloucester wrote a letter to the scientist Samuel Hartlib with a description of a beehive with a glass observation panel. Mewe also showed the design to Dr. John Wilkins (1614-72) of Wadham College, Oxford who built his own version with vertically stacked box-hives – and Dr. Wilkins gave one of these hives to the diarist and gardener, John Evelyn who kept it in his garden at Sayes Court.

Evelyn included a drawing of it in his Elysium Britannicum with the note:  ‘Hives of this kind may have 2 or 3 windows to command a full view of their works, but two will be sufficient, because they do not so much delight in the coldnesse of the glasses, & too great intromission of light distracts them.’

Elysium Britannicum, 1650s Copyright: British Library

In 1714, the social philosopher Bernard Mandeville published a fable about bees. In the story, the bees become selfless and instead of pursuing their own goals, work as equals. The result? Disaster. No nectar was collected and therefore the production of honey stopped – a selfless society was worse for social welfare. The economist, Adam Smith, developed the idea further in his Wealth Of Nations although he used the analogy of the butcher, brewer and baker rather than bees. He argued that social status and social identity were primarily determined not by social, religious or political rank but by occupation and by an individual’s relation to the means of production. The concept was illustrated in 1867 by George Cruikshank in The British Bee Hive

The British Bee Hive by George Cruikshank. Source: V&A

And bringing us up to the 21st century, the Bee Hive at Kew Gardens designed by Wolfgang Buttress. Its aim is to bring awareness of the interdependence of humans on bees.

And here are two more examples of bee boles in gardens – both from the nineteenth century.

First from the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall

and secondly at Kiplin Hall in North Yorkshire.

And on a more sombre note…. At the end of last year, the UK government pledged to halve ‘the impact of damaging pesticides on the nation’s wildlife and flora by the year 2023’. (The Observer, 29th January, 2023) An admirable objective but one which made the announcement at the beginning of this year all the more disappointing. Unlike the rest of Europe, the UK Government has authorised the use of Neonicotinoids on sugar beet – it is estimated that a single teaspoon of the pesticide is enough to kill more than a billion bees. There is however a caveat. The use of the pesticide is only triggered if there are high levels of the aphids that spread the disease on 31st March, 2023 so we can only hope that the cold weather will continue and prevent the threshold being reached.

 

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