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
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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