What can law do for bees? A touch of history


We have evidence for honey-gathering from rock art dating back to the Mesolithic, but there is also information about beekeeping in the context of laws (and literature) in early Ireland – what do you do when a neighbour’s bees invade your property? Worse still, what happens if one stings you? Even worse, what happens when a bee stings a king in the eye and he can no longer reign as unblemished sovereign? Today, our customs and our laws – read pesticides, among other subjects – can deeply affect the existence of honeybees and the other bees so essential to production of agriculture, horticulture and even your flower garden.

Wir haben Hinweise auf das Sammeln von Honig welche bis in das Mesolithikum zurückreichen aber es gibt auch Informationen zum Thema Imkerei im Kontext von Gesetzen (und Literatur) im frühmittelalterlichen Irland – was passiert, wenn die Bienen eines Nachbarn auf das eigene Besitzgrundstück eindringen? Schlimmer: was passiert wenn man von einer Biene gestochen wird? Und sogar noch schwerwiegender: was passiert wenn ein König von einer Biene ins Auge gestochen wird und nicht weiter als makelloser Herrscher weiterregieren kann? Heute beeinflussen unsere Gewohnheiten und Gesetze – Pestizide und andere Dinge – die Existenz der Honigbienen und anderer Bienen so tiefgreifend, dass diese sogar Einfluss auf unsere Landwirtschaft, den Gemüseanbau und sogar unseren Blumengarten entfalten.

Nous avons des preuves de la collecte de miel de l’art rupestre datant du Mésolithique, mais il existe également des informations sur l’apiculture dans le contexte des lois (et de la littérature) en Irlande médiévale – que faites-vous lorsque les abeilles d’un voisin envahissent votre propriété? Pire encore, que se passe-t-il si la petite bête vous pique? Pire encore, que se passe-t-il lorsqu’une abeille pique un roi à l’oeil et qu’il ne peut plus régner en souverain sans tare? Aujourd’hui, nos coutumes et nos lois – voir la question des pesticides, par exemple – peuvent profondément affecter l’existence des abeilles, bourdons et les autres espèces si essentielles à l’agriculture, à l’horticulture et même à votre jardin à fleurs.

bee-keeping – bees – Old Irish law – legal texts – museum practice

People all over the world are concerned about bees of every sort that ensure pollination and produce the honey that has been prized by humans for millennia, attested by the many examples of rock art paintings of honey-gathering, such as the well-known Mesolithic scene from the Cuevas de la Araña near Valencia in Spain (caves). That was long before any written legal documents, but among the earliest laws that have come down to us in Europe are in Old Irish, which had a special treatise on bee-keeping called the “Bee-Judgments” (Bechbretha).i

Mesolithic rock painting of a honey hunter harvesting honey and wax from a bees nest in a tree at Cuevas de la Araña (dated around 8000 to 6000 BCE). By Achillea – Drawn from a painting from the caves of Cueva de la Araña by fr:Utilisateur:Achillea converted to svg by User:Amada44, GPL, Source

Although there is much debate about whether the honeybee in the British Isles is a native or was introduced by its human admirers, there is a tradition in Irish literature that it was brought to the island by a saint, and the 6th-century lady Saint Gobnait was patron of beekeepers. Saints in early traditions are often credited with introducing highly valued objects and practices. It may well be that monasteries practiced bee-keeping on an impressively large scale due to their need for large amounts of beeswax for candle-making.

Stained glass by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) of Saint Gobnait of Ballyvourney, 1914, Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York, in the public domain in the United States (published before 1925). Wikipedia “Beekeeping in Ireland”

In any case, bees are exciting for lawyers. They fly away from you, even trespass on your neighbour’s land, hence the inclusion of bees in laws about good (or not) relations among neighbours. They can also be stolen from you, and bee-rustling figured among the penalties to be paid, which applied to swarms, just as did legal sanctions against making off with cattle, pigs, horses, sheep, goats, chickens and geese. Linguistic analysis of terms in Old Irish relating to bees and bee-keeping indicates that the honeybee was present in Ireland well before the arrival of Christianity. Keeping track of one’s bees was deemed so important that it was not included in the activities forbidden on Sundays.

Old Irish lawyers were sticklers for detail and the bee-keeping laws are unique in containing a mention of the bees themselves as villains, in that they could wander off and indulge in “grazing-trespass” on other peoples’ property, just like a cow thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. This involved bees “stealing” from a neighbour who had an especially fine stand of nectar-bearing flowers and the culprits might have been identified by sprinkling flour on them. This “offense” could seriously reduce a farmer’s honey-production.ii

Since bees and their honey were so highly valued, it is no wonder that a bee sting counted in legal proceedings. If a person was moving, robbing or even watching the hives during swarming, s/he was not compensated for resultant injury. However, if bees sting anyone not interfering with them, the beekeeper is obliged to provide the victim with a meal of honey. An extreme case is also cited: if a bee sting caused the loss of an eye. That was an incident said to have happened to a king, who consequently had to relinquish his kingship because of this blemish. He sued the bee-keeper, and the legal judgment was to cast a lot on all the hives in the apiary. The lot fell on one hive and the king confiscated that. Hence, all the bees in the hive were held to be guilty for the offense of one bee. The human eye-closing reflex is so rapid that a bee sting would be unlikely to penetrate to the cornea, so there are good chances the story is simply a fine tale. Later commentary on the law, however, mentions payment of one hive for blinding and two hives for killing a person by bee sting.iii

Honey was the main sweetening product until sugar-cane was imported to Europe, perhaps in the 12th century, and honey was valuable as a source of carbohydrate energy. It was especially prized in the winter months, and honey figures in literature as well as law, baked into bread, as an ingredient in fine cuisine (honey salmon or rubbed into meat before roasting) and in making mead or combined with malt to make bragget, between mead and beer in strength. Although honey was not considered appropriate for anyone suffering from diarrhea, it was highly recommended in restoring general health and could be demanded from a beekeeper for an invalid, even during the first three years of a hive’s “life”, when it otherwise had immunity to all obligations to neighbhours. As to bees’ legal home, there is some indication that hives were made from hollowed logs and later, wickerwork, with woven straw not coming in before the 17th century.iv

How does the law protect bees in your area? What are your traditions of honey in cuisine and in making beehives? Are bees associated with particular figures in your traditions? Above all, are there beehives in your collections?

Art in the beehive panels at the SEM Slovene Ethnographic Museum, Ljubljana

Illustrations of beehives and all the materials appurtenant to beekeeping, even the human beings, are buzzing in to our files. So, mark this blog in your agenda and send us illustrations from your own collections.

Cozette Griffin-Kremer (FR) and Hanna Ignatowicz (PO), at the Slovene Ethnographic Museum, Photo Kerry-Leigh Burchill


i Among several texts, the only complete copy is in the oldest surviving Irish legal manuscript (H.2.15A pp.20a19-26a7) in D.A. Binchy Corpus Iuris Hibernici pp. 444-57 (vol. II) and the language is dated to the mid-7th century CE. See Thomas Charles-Edwards and Fergus Kelly (eds.) Bechbretha, An Old Irish Law Tract on Bee-keeping, Dublin Insitute for Advanced Studies, 1983, pp. 1, 13.

ii See discussion in Bechbretha p. 40-43, 190.

iii Fergus Kelly Early Irish Farming, Dublin Institute, 1998, pp. 156-157.

iv EIF, 113, 191, 335, 338, 348, 350.