Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Bee-keeping

The value of honey was no doubt discovered long before human beings started keeping written records. The Egyptians were maintaining bees as far back as 2450 BCE. In the Middle Ages, bees were seen as a source of not only honey, but also wax for candles wanted by the church and the aristocracy. They had other methods of lighting, such as tallow and rushlights, but wax candles were the best. 

Many people kept bees for these purposes, but the practice was so common that there was no need to explain it, and so the "rules" of beekeeping are scarce. The Geoponika, a 20-volume Byzantine collection of agricultural knowledge from the 900s includes "of the management of bees" in book 15.

The bee is the wisest and cleverest of all animals and the closest to man in intelligence; its works is truly divine and of the greatest use to mankind. Its social life resembles that of the best regulated cities. In their excursions bees follow a leader and obey instructions. They bring back sticky secretions from flowers and trees and spread them like ointment on their floors and doorways. Some are employed in making honey and some in other tasks. The bee is extremely clean, settling on nothing that is bad-smelling or impure;

Initial beekeeping was finding the trees the bees themselves had used and watching them. Holes would be bored, or even small wooden doors installed, to give access to the honey inside and to be able to seal up the hive against inclement weather. Once humans decided to keep the bees closer, they built hives of any material available: clay, wicker, straw, wood. Some documents warn against stone and clay, because the summer heat would make them unbearable. Pliny the Elder mentions hives made from horn and translucent stone, but there is no evidence that any hives made like that ever existed.

Skeps—domes of straw with a small hole—became common in the 14th century. They were easy to make, but to get at the wax and honey you needed to disturb the bees. Another problem with skeps was that they were small and easily stolen. Wax and honey were that important. We know the wax was for candles, but honey had lots of uses.

We will go into that next.

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