Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Test your bee knowledge against medieval beekeepers


Medieval advice to beekeepers and my response as a modern beekeeper. Please do agree or disagree in a comment!

The extracts are from Geoponika: Agricultural Pursuits a collection of books compiled in 10th Century Byzantium

1. Let the intervals between all the trees be filled with roses, and lilies, and violets, and the crocus, which are very pleasant to the sight and to the smell; and they are very useful, and profitable, and they are of advantage to the bees. 

TRUE An easy one! Planting flowers does attract bees although there are specific links between types of flower and type of pollinator so modern advice is to plant wildflowers. Honeybees love dandelions, clover and, of course, bee borage. If you look at the labels on types of honey, you'll see honeybees' favourite forage foods!

2. Now, as bees produced from an ox come to life on the one-and-twentieth day, so are swarms produced in the same number of days.

FALSE The medieval notion that bees were born from worms in ox or calf corpses was reported as fact by such luminaries as Augustine (5thC CE) Isidore of Seville (7thC CE). FAKE news, people! I bet confusion between maggots and bee larvae led to the story. However, worker bees DO take 21 days to develop from egg to hatching, so this does show good beekeeping knowledge! (24 days for a drone (male bee) and 16 days for a queen).

3. The kings indeed are found in the upper parts of the combs: and it is proper to leave one in every hive, and to destroy the rest; for the bees being divided between them, raise a sedition, and they desist from their work.

FALSE There is no bee king. The medieval assumption was that the beehive was a mirror of the most common human feudal system with a male leader. We now know this is a (female) queen bee and that, in a healthy hive, she is the only egg-layer. Modern thought is that she is no leader - the bees' system of decision-making is complex and democratic. BUT beekeepers will tell you that the queen sets the tone for the hive. If you replace a queen, a hive can turn from being aggressive to being friendly. There is still much we don't know!

HALF TRUE The queen cells for a replacement queen are usually half-way up the comb whereas queen cells for swarm queens hang from the bottom of frames. Bees will indeed be 'distracted' during a change of queens and the battles between rivals so some beekeepers do eliminate all the queen cells bar one. This is risky as if the sole queen dies (e.g. during her mating flight) there are no alternatives.

The best indeed of the kings are those of a yellow colour, of a size larger than that of a bee by the half; the second are those that are variegated, rather of a dark colour, of double size.

I HAVE NO IDEA but it's interesting that in the 10thC different types of honeybee queen and their virtues were observed and discussed. Just by choosing big yellow queens in preference to stripey dark ones, humans were breeding honeybees selectively long before theories of evolution were formulated. There is still huge debate over which strains of honeybees are best. My last purchase included a Frere Adam queen, trademarked for the famous beekeeper monk who worked at Buckfast Abbey from 2019 and who created this cross-breed of Italian bees with African bees.

This animal alone seeks a leader, that takes care of the whole swarm; it therefore always honours the king, and it accompanies him with alacrity, wherever he takes his station, and it supports him when he is fatigued, and it carries and protects him when he cannot fly.

TRUE The bee colony does congregate around the queen and 'pay her respect' with a special fluttering gesture of wings. A bee swarm will cluster around the queen. Bees do carry and protect their queen if she is weakened. I saw this on my beekeeping course when a queen reacted badly to being marked. The beemaster put a coloured spot on the queen through the mesh in the tube he'd placed her in but when he released her., she lay quite still on the landing board. A group of bees rushed out, expressed anxiety and carried her into the hive. The story ended well and she recovered, thanks to her courtiers. 

Modern thinking does not suggest that the queen takes care of the swarm but her existence and behaviour, plus her scent, sets the tone for the hive. A queenless hive is depressed, suffers disease and decline. The workers stop gathering pollen, become apathetic. 

4. If it be necessary for a purchaser, or for some other reason, that they (the hives) should be moved, let the person tie the hives, in the night, carefully in leather (skins), and let him take them away before day ; for in this private manner he will neither disturb the combs, nor harass the bees.

TRUE Night-time is best for moving bees and I will never forget collecting a hive full of bees from a Provençal hillside in the darkness, my husband and I wearing white suits (as many of our friends think appropriate). We used belts strapped around the hive and foam in the entrance to stop angry bees escaping.

5. You will cure them of dimness of sight with the smoke of the leaves of origanum (origano).  

FALSE Bee eye-sight is amazing. They have two sets of eyes and see a range of ultra-violets that flowers use to attract their pollinators. Through bee eyes, a flower has a scented target on it shouting 'I'm here!' I am prepared to state that a blast of origano smoke will not improve a bee's eyesight but I must confess I have no evidence to back that up. I DO wonder how a medieval beekeeper figured out that the bees' eyesight was dim (note the plural in the instruction - it seems ALL the bees are going short-sighted). I can think of many possible misinterpretations, for example

- a bee uses its waggle-dance to follow its internal GPS to the exact spot where home entrance is - or should be. If you transfer bees from a hive with a low entrance to one with a high entrance, they will at first head for the place the old entrance was.

So you give a blast of oregano smoke and hey presto, within a few days the bees' eyesight must have improved because they're using the correct entrance (as they do anyway after a few days to get used to it).

6. You will also destroy creatures that lie in wait for them and they are wasps, the titmouse (tit family), the bee-eater, swallows, crocodiles, and lizards; and drive away and destroy all things that are pernicious to the bee.

TRUE All these creatures will eat bees.

This artist seems to have added an extra pair of legs but I love the way the bees look like flowers.
7. But it consummately hates the slothful; and they therefore take the slothful and kill them.

FALSE Scientists have tracked individual bees and found that some foraging worker bees are very 'lazy', do little foraging and fall asleep in flowers often :) but no chastisement has been observed. However, drones (male bees) have become synonymous with 'lazy creatures' in human vocabulary prior to drone machines. It is true that drones are expelled from the hive (killed) in autumn so that could be interpreted as hating and killing slothful bees.

Are drones 'slothful'? The biological function of a drone is to fertilise a queen (any queen) during her maiden flight. If one succeeds, he dies. Those who don't succeed are the boys of summer, waiting for queens or in the hive so no, they don't do housework, child care, feeding, gathering or honey-making or defence (they have no stings). If necessary, they do help cool the hive by vibrating their wings. Our local nougat museum has a human-size beehive mock-up and the model drones are playing cards and drinking beer so I think the public image is obvious :)

BUT without drones, the colony dies. One problem with that parasite we beekeepers hate, the varroa mite, is that it develops on the drone larvae. The resulting weakness in the colony makes it clear how vital drones are.

Note the traditional enmity between bears and bees

8. Its mechanical skill indeed seems to make a very near approach to a rational understanding, for it makes hexagonal cells.

TRUE and the mathematics of nature is a wonder.

9. Proper harmony is also appreciated by this animal; for which reason, bee-masters bring them together by means of cymbals, or by clapping heir hands with just adaptation.

I HAVE NO IDEA but my bees do not show any signs of obedience. I am happy that they don't attack me when I sing or hum to them and we'll leave it there.

10. They indeed become unmanageable at the approach of human creatures, and they fall upon them, and they are more severe on such as smell of wine, and of perfume; and they fall upon women, especially upon such as are of an amorous complexion.

I love this portrayal of bees, showing them as bird-like. Medieval thinking considered bees to be small birds, not insects. I think the artist was influenced by this belief!

SOMETIMES TRUE Bees are sometimes very aggressive and sometimes very easy to work with. Beekeepers will give you many reasons for this: storm coming, high winds, rain, dark colours, woollen clothes. Scent is very important to honeybees and they will kill their queen or each other if the smell is wrong. They do react badly to some perfumes and the venom in their stings gives off the scent of bananas, rousing other bees to attack. That's why the bees attack Mielitta in 'Queen of the Warrior Bees; she's wearing the banana scent delivered anonymously as her 18th year-cycle gift.

As to whether they fall upon women... FALSE! There have been too many women beekeepers for that to be true, including the Irish Patron Saint of Bees, Saint Gobnait.

I've suffered one attack from my bees and maybe it was because of my amorous complexion but I think it more like to have been because: they were in a bad mood with a storm in the air; I banged the hive trying to get in a frame that didn't fit properly; and I was wearing a snood over my hair that must have smelled wrong (That's the only way I can explain the attack focusing completely on my head and hair, not my face at all.) 

11. The bee is the most sagacious and the most skilful of all animals, and it approaches man in point of understanding; and its work is truly divine, and of the greatest utility to the human race

YOU DECIDE! The more we know about bees, the more we realise that the hive mind is a super-organism of great complexity and they are now considered essential to the human race not just useful.

If bees interest you, then you'll enjoy shapeshifting into one, entering a beehive and getting a bee's eye-view of the world through my eco-fantasy novel.

Buy the book
5* 'captivating and intriguing'
5* 'I loved the bees and the parts about the hive - as a bee keeper in training I appreciate the author’s factual bee knowledge and the imaginative way this was translated into fantasy - just wonderful.'
5* 'I was a little dubious going in to the book about the whole bee element. I had yet to read a book where this kind of story line works. But Jean Gill again does it with such ease that I not only believed it, I enjoyed it! The descriptions and the writing style were so potent I could almost believe I was in the book right alongside Mielitta. This is a book that I would highly recommend. I will now be going straight out to try anything else by this author!!'

53 goodreads reviews - average 4.17* out of 5 - see them all

Geoponika: Agricultural Pursuits. Compiled in 10th Century Byzantium
Translated from the Greek by Owen T. (Thomas) 1749-1812

1. Douce 88 fol 111v B
2. Bibliothèque Municipale de Reims, ms. 993, Folio 151v
3. The Luttrell Psalter
4. Medieval Bees Hortus Noster
5.  Barthélémy L'Anglais, op.cit, 1445-1450, Artificiosae Apes, France, Le Mans XVe s. BNF, FR 136, fol. 16
6. Illuminated Manuscript BNF
7. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 128v
More medieval bee photos can be found on the American Garden History Blog

Friday, June 7, 2019

Amazing Bee-haviour

You would not bee-lieve some of this bee-haviour but it's true!

To become a registered beekeeper here in Provence, I took a practical course during 2014 and since then I've looked after my hives, EndeavourDiligence and Resolution (named by my husband).
Nothing tastes as good as honey produced by your own bees from your own 'terroir' (a French word that is more emotional than 'soil' or 'land'). It's not easy these days to keep honeybees alive but that makes beekeeping even more important, even on my small scale.

I never thought I'd be brave enough to become a beekeeper but here I am, fascinated by the habits of creatures that have been farmed by humans since prehistory, for almost 9,000 years according to archaeological evidence. And yet there is still so much we don't know. Which is good for a novelist!
When I realised that my heroine shape-shifted into a bee, I knew I was going to enjoy the research. Here are some amazing bee-facts. Not all of them found their way into Queen of the Warrior Bees but Mielitta's experiences as a bee draw on my own experience too. I shall reveal some of my own experiences in the next blog and I hope you enjoy finding out about bees as much as I have.

  • All worker bees are female. They map out their territory and communicate this by dances, which give exact directions to e.g. food or home, by distance and compass points.
  • The queen is female and on her mating flight she is impregnated by approx 10-20 male bees (drones) with the thousands of sperm needed to lay eggs all her life (6 years if she's lucky). After mating, she doesn't fly again unless she takes a third of the colony and swarms, leaving the old hive to a new queen (one of her daughters).
  • A queenless hive is doomed but the queen does not make decisions, other than those concerning egg-laying. When choosing a new home, scout bees are sent to investigate options and they dance their findings to the whole swarm.  They are more or less enthusiastic according to the quality of the new home's potential. Gradually, one dance is taken up by all the bees and that is the chosen home - democracy at work! Research shows that the chosen home is nearly always the best of those considered - better still, successful democracy at work!      
  • Drones successful in mating leave part of their body in the queen and die.
  • In my region, honeybees prepare for winter by throwing out all the drones. They are left outside to die and in the spring, the queen lays eggs which will become the new season's drones.
  • Bees can't see red and they can see ultra-violet so flowers look like they have targets and landing-paths, in a purplish world.
  • When worker bees want to raise a new queen, they feed royal jelly to a worker baby so she grows up as a queen. 
  • A newly-hatched queen will try to kill any other queens in her hive and will sting unhatched rivals to death in their cells. Many beekeepers believe that the murder victims 'sing', aware of death approaching. There are other theories about the song of the unborn queens but nobody doubts the song itself, a high, piping noise.

Extract from The Queen of The Warrior Bees

Chapter 1

Why was the Forest forbidden? The very word was unmentionable. Yet everybody knew it was out there. Otherwise, how could children scare each other with whispered stories of what might be in the Forest? Gigantic sticky-buds, striped man-eaters, slithery poison? Their imaginations ran wild in a tamed world. But as each child reached Maturity and passed – or failed – the ritual test, the word Forest disappeared from the new adult’s mind, like a leaf dropping in autumn.
     Mielitta had tried to ask adults why the Forest was forbidden but the word tied her tongue in tangled roots and instead she found herself asking the way to the schoolroom, or some other question so ludicrous that she was mocked for her stupidity. She sensed magecraft twisting her words but she could not force a different path from the one required of good citizens.
     Now she was the only child who'd seen eighteen year-cycles and still been told she was not ready for testing. Her old playmates moved around the same halls as she did, girls in silken robes, boys in leatherette jerkins and long trews, while she still wore a tabard over a child’s short britches and stuffed her hair into the coarse netting of a servant’s ugly snood.
     Flowers, thought Mielitta, as three girls in gowns like satin petals rustled past her. Grace, Felicity and Espoir had turned into a golden daffodil, a blue pansy and a violet campanula respectively. Mielitta knew these flowers from the books in the library, which she was tasked with cleaning each week. She remembered when the golden daffodil used to play leapfrog against the stable wall and when the violet campanula had linked pinkie fingers with her, swearing friendship forever. But even then, her finding had set her apart. All the other children had been born in the Citadel, not discovered as a baby by the Mage-Smith. She would always be a foundling, a freak.
     ‘The stones be with you, Lady Grace, Lady Felicity, Lady Espoir,’ murmured Mielitta, lowering her eyes. Barely nodding slender necks, expressions stonier than the walls they passed, the ladies swished past in silence, the better to ignore such a freak.
     Had they forgotten her when they reached maturity? Or did they prefer to forget their broken promises, made by childish pinkie fingers?
     As the chirruping gossip started up again behind her, Mielitta was warned of a potentially worse encounter by the brown scent of peat, a metallic clank and rumbling voices. She shrank into the shadows of an alcove, held her breath. Whichever route she took from her bed to the kitchen, there was always the risk of meeting Jannlou and his cronies.
I hope you enjoyed this blog, creating a buzz for my new novel. You can find out more and continue reading the first two chapters of Queen of the Warrior Bees here.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A Greater World :Clare Flynn

Clare's author page on amazon
Since I first met historical novelist Clare Flynn at a conference in Oxford in 2016 and felt an instant cameraderie, her books have become bestsellers. Her fans can't wait for their next voyage in the early 20th century in the company of women who suffer and survive and I have great news for them! But what about the woman behind the books? Clare's life has been as amazing as any of her books and each year I discover more of her secret life. One constant is Clare's love of travel and awareness that she is part of a greater world so this story of love, loss and a voyage into the unknown seems an appropriate focus for the interview!

Welcome to my blog, Clare!

Tell me a bit about yourself - where do you live and what do you do when you’re not writing?
Thanks for inviting me, Jean. Home is Eastbourne on the beautiful Sussex coast, surrounded by the South Downs and with views of the grey-green chalky sea from my window. I moved here three years ago after twenty years in London, but lived here in my teens so I knew what I was I was letting myself in for. I love it!
I spent my pre-writing career firstly in Marketing where I worked for big global companies like Proctor & Gamble, then latterly working for myself as a strategy consultant. My work took me all over the world with a wide range of fabulous clients from brewers to broadcasters.
Ah, The Chalky Sea is another title I recognise and now I know the inspiration!

I know you lived in Paris for some time. Where else have you lived and what drew you there? Do you think any of these places influenced you and your writing?
I lived in Paris on the Boulevard St Germain in the late 80s for two years. It sounds romantic but not when you have to drive round for hours trying to find a parking spot after getting home late from work. It was my first experience of living abroad and it wasn’t a happy one – pity as I’d lap it up now– especially my gorgeous little apartment in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

I had a couple of years in Brussels and three in Milan. I adore Italy and speak Italian. The Alien Corn has some flashbacks to the war there. More recently my latest book, which will be published by Canelo in June 2019, has an Italian character and I very much enjoyed writing him.

My other exotic temporary home was Sydney where I worked for six months in 2006/7. I’d been to Australia a few times before and had already started work on my first novel, A Greater World, set in the Blue Mountains.

The Blue Mountains
What made you choose the different settings in your books (including Canada and India)?
Location has a huge influence on my writing. It’s often the trigger point for a story. My second novel, Kurinji Flowers, is set in South India in a fictional hill town, based on Munnar. Unable to sleep in my hotel room one night on holiday there, I lay thinking about who else might have stayed in that room back in the 1930s. By the time dawn was breaking I had mapped out the background to the book and some of the key characters. I found the whole area magical – the endless rolling tea gardens, like a huge piece of corduroy velvet across the landscape, the bright vivid colours of the statues and temples, the flowers, the wildlife, the birdsong, and the visible colonial heritage. My first visit there was to paint so I had to make my character, Ginny, a painter too – albeit a more successful one than I could ever be!
I love your descriptions of place. You have a painter's eye!

What drew you to the early 20th century as a period and how do you do your research?
I read an interview with William Boyd the other day in which he said that he didn’t see the twentieth century as history because his grandmother had lived in the nineteenth century and his great uncle fought in the first war, so it doesn’t feel so far away or alien. He said, “I feel that’s my natural range – say three generations back from my own life and time – it’s not strange.” That exactly reflects my own feelings. I can’t see me writing books set in Tudor England or eighteenth century France.

I do a variety of things as research. Ideally, I visit the location – but my recent trilogy, The Canadians, is set in eastern Canada and I couldn’t get there. Instead I used Google Earth, YouTube, books, websites, maps, films, almanacs, online weather statistics and – best of all – my own private Facebook group consisting of three retired Canadian librarians who answered all my questions, no matter how obscure, and went above and beyond the call of duty to help me.
We are so lucky these days to be able to connect through social media with experts - and, like you, I've found them so generous in response.

You write about strong women who suffer and survive, sometimes hindered by the men in their lives. How do you hope readers will react to your novels?
I hope they will see my characters as living within their own period, not ours. I get very frustrated when someone describes a character as being insufficiently empowered when, in the context of the era she lived in, she was pushing the boundaries as far as they would go. We can’t expect the world of the early twentieth century to match our own. Most married women were not even permitted to work outside the home. My character, Elizabeth, in A Greater World, has never worked in the sense we would – she took in violin pupils when her family fell on hard times and later in the book gets involved in understanding the economics of her husband’s failing coalmine. I had one reviewer very snidely remark that a mere violin teacher couldn’t possibly have done that – which is incredibly patronising. Elizabeth never actually takes over the running of the mine but asks enough questions to figure out what its future might be. So, I suppose I’m saying I’d like readers not to assume women in the past had all the same attitudes and possibilities open to them – while at the same time not patronising women because their lives were more confined than ours may be.
That's a very balanced response to the ongoing debate re women's roles in the past and one that resonates with me as writer of medieval fiction too. 

Who is your ideal reader?
Someone who appreciates a good story, with multi-faceted characters and a liking for travel to interesting places – even if it’s vicarious.

If you could wave a magic wand and change something about your career what would it be?
That I’d started it sooner. But that said, I have no real regrets. I am very happy with what I’ve achieved so far, and I remain excited about the future. I’m also grateful that my professional life gave me the financial footing that helped me have the courage to go full time as a writer.

Congratulations on your incredible performance in Nanowrimo!  https://nanowrimo.org/ In 2018, you completed a draft novel in a month for the third year running. How do you manage this in November but not the rest of the year? And what tips do you have for others in tackling Nanowrimo?
Actually, it was the fourth year! Four of my books were partly written in NanoWriMo. I’m a highly competitive individual as my siblings will testify (but then so are they!) and the pressure of hitting that goal – even though I’m only competing against myself – is a huge motivator. And having done it once it’s easier to do it again. I’m quite a fast writer anyway and I’m lucky that my first drafts are already fairly polished before I get into the rounds of editing. It wasn’t always like this – I think it has come over years of practice. Maybe not always in writing fiction but I have long had the need to express myself in words as a cornerstone of the way I made my living.

My only tips for NaNoWriMo are very simple ones. Firstly, get off to as fast a start as possible so you have some slack to cover any underperforming days. Nothing’s worse than racing to catch up if you’re behind – that’s very demoralising. Secondly, do some planning beforehand so you have a clear idea of where you are going even if, like me, you write by the seat of your pants. I think I’d struggle if I sat down on Day One and had to start from a blank page with no idea of characters, location or inciting incident.

Tell me about your working day. Do you work to a routine? Endless cups of coffee or tea? How does this change during Nanowrimo?
No routine! I try to write every day but I don’t beat myself up if I miss a few days. Yes, gallons of tea and a more limited amount of coffee, then wine at six o’clock! I always break for lunch and rarely spend the entire day writing – there’s so much else to do – not least marketing. In Nanowrimo it’s much the same as long as I hit the target for that day.

What has been the hardest thing for you to overcome in becoming a published author? What or who has helped you most in the process?
I wasted a lot of time before deciding to self-publish. I had an agent and lost months waiting for her to sell the book, which she didn’t. She wasn’t enamoured of my second book so I decided I’d nothing to lose by giving Self-Publishing a go. And by then I had some self-belief. What I never expected to happen was that it would open a whole new world of friendship and support. Nor did I expect to be so successful – especially as I write Historical with a romantic element (not straight romance) and was warned it was hard to crack. I think I took well to Self-Publishing as I was used to running my own business and hence having control. I see it as more entrepreneurial than being trad published. Although now I am enjoying having a foot in both camps.

My fellow authors have helped me the most. I have been amazed at the friendship, generosity and massive support of other writers such as you, Jean.
Right back at you! I feel the same as you re Self-Publishing (and time wasted with traditional publishers) and the support of fellow-writers is generous - and practical! - beyond belief. 

If you could pick one character in one of your books, to spend some time with, who would it be and why?
Hector from Kurinji Flowers would be great fun. The drinks would flow, the conversation would be challenging and entertaining. Just as long as we don’t end up fancying the same men!
Haha! Always a friendship spoiler :)

Tell me about your latest book and why we should all buy it?
My first book, A Greater World is now also my next book! I signed a contract with Canelo for them to relaunch it and for me to write a follow up. I’ve just finished the follow up (yay!). A Greater World is available NOW! The follow up, The Storms Between Us, comes out in June 2019. And why should you read it? I have no idea – unless you like losing out on your beauty sleep! One reader described it as Wuthering Heights meets Australia meets Titanic! Another said, “There is so much going on in this story - everything from rape, death, murder, marriage, divorce, drug taking and every human emotion from loss to joy to reconciliation.”

What’s next for Clare Flynn?
By the time you’re reading this I will be away on a four-month cruise around the world calling at numerous exotic destinations from French Polynesia to Japan. I’m not putting myself under any pressure to write while I’m away as it’s a holiday – but I know while we are at sea, I will probably end up at some point hiding away in my cabin or under a sunshade, bashing away at my laptop! I’ll be back in May in time for the publication of The Storms Between Them.

Happy Launch Day, Clare, for your book and your cruise ship!

You can connect with Clare via
her website
her publisher's website
her blog

While Clare is on her cruise, discovering a greater world, why not check out her books?

A Greater World

She crossed the world to marry a stranger.
   When Elizabeth Morton's father asks her to travel to the other side of the world to marry a man she's never met, she is stunned. It's 1920 and a woman has rights. But her choices are removed when she is raped by her brother-in-law and thrown out of her own home by her sister.
   When Michael Winterbourne wakes with a hangover after his engagement celebrations, he is about to be the cause of a terrible tragedy that will destroy his family, turn his life upside down and catapult him into leaving England.
   Elizabeth, born into a prosperous family, and Michael, a miner, come from different worlds. They would never have met but the SS Historic, bound for Sydney, is a ship with only one class.
Falling in love should have been the end to all their troubles. But fate and the mysterious Jack Kidd make sure it's only the beginning.

Photo credits: Clare Flynn and Canelo