Did anybody care about, or for, bees in the European Middle Ages?

Medieval texts and iconography have much to tell us about beekeeping in Europe, from how hives were constructed to who took care of them, and… for whom.

Les textes et l’iconographie du Moyen Âge en Europe recèlent une pléthore d’informations sur l’apiculture, sur les ruches, sur qui s’en occupait et… pour qui.

Honeybees – Beekeeping – Archaeology – Middle Ages – Written Sources – Honey

Honey was highly important in the Middle Ages. Cane sugar was known in Antiquity, but it was rare until the 17th century, so honey was used in food and drinks, as well as in medical treatments. Remember, too, that wax was needed for civil and religious lighting. We have evidence of all this from medieval texts such as agricultural treatises, encyclopaedias, fable-books and even religious texts, as well as the illustrations in them. They show us a great diversity of beehives in medieval times and deep interest in the insects’ lives.

There seem to have been three periods according to the shape and function of beehives. The first has fixed honeycombs – the bees attach their combs to an immobile upper wall and this is the only kind used in the Middle Ages. The second type has movable components added to the upper part of beehives with fixed combs and it is only subsequently that we see hives with movable frames appear. Still, the beehives we see in illustrations have a wealth of shapes and materials that highlight regional diversity and personized craftsmanship, since peasants made their beehives from their own local resources.

Trunk or box beehives

Widely used in Gaul, tree trunk beehives are fairly rare in medieval images, although a few appear in Italian illuminated manuscripts, while their widespread use is attested to in texts from southern France and in Spain. This kind of beehive is the closest to what bees do naturally, when they set up home in hollow trees. Medieval written sources tell us that people often  harvested a wild forest swarm by cutting out part of the tree trunk and bringing it back as a beehive. In that case, the trunk was cut out half-way down to provide a flight entrance.

Of course, there are other cylindrical beehives, always Italian and made of wooden slats or boards side-by-side. On the other hand, although we have much evidence in written sources from Provence, central and southern Italy, Spain and Portugal, of beehives made of a band of cylindrical cork oak off a tree trunk, we have no illustrations of these.

Log beehive (Polish) Barć in the museum (Bialowieża, Poland), Wikipedia Creative Commons “Beehive”, source Przykuta (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Przykuta)

Parallel to trunk beehives, the box beehives so widespread in Greek and Roman Antiquity, seems to exist in nearly all Italian testimony, made of wide wooden boards, although we do not know what kind of wood – conifer, as Columella recommended because they resisted honeycomb moth.* Illustrations of light-coloured beehives might attest to this. Probably derived from a tree trunk laid out on the ground, these parallelepiped hives were always large, seeming to be about a meter long, even 1.5m, and about 1.30m wide. In most of these hives, flight holes were small, but there were many of them and they seem to be made of two movable partitions. Pliny mentioned “the cover should penetrate the hive, if the hive is too large or if the honey harvest is too small, for fear that the bees will be discouraged and not work well, then it can be made smaller, so that they are fooled about how much their work has progressed.

English: Galleria_mellonella ; Français : Galleria_mellonella – Fausse teigne de la cire (honeycomb moth), 21 February 2009, Source: dhobern (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dhobern/3298989266/), Creative Commons, FR Wikipedia ‘Galleria mellonella

Wattlework hives

The beehives we see the most often in medievial illustrations are made of wickerwork woven wattle or split-wood. This kind of basketwork, which was used in Roman times, continued in Gaul and was widespread in the Middle Ages – we see it in illuminated manuscripts in England, northern France, Flanders or in the Rhineland, whereas we hardly find them in more southern manuscripts.

Bees and beehives, Tacuinum sanitatis d’Ibn Butlan, (14th century, Lombardy), Rome, Bibl. Casanatense, ms. 4182, f. 182, public domain, EN Wikipedia “Beekeeping”

We can see several types in these illustrations – some have a ribbed outside of woven wattle over a framework, without any visible coating, so insulation from heat and wet must have been poor. However, this woven surface was more frequently covered with a brownish coating, which matches the written sources indicating the use of cow pats, as in Antiquity, as the most common covering.

All this kind of beehives, usually about 50 cm in height, were woven over a wickerwork frame: a barked branch was split into several bundles for the vertical stays the wattles were woven around, usually with 8 to 12 ribs and sometimes these ran down to the bottom to make short feet, unless the bottom had a loop around it for the flight hole. The often golden colour of the wattlework does not enable us to see if they were made of oak, hazel, osier or clematis, as suggested by the texts.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beekeepers and the Birdnester, ca. 1568, line drawing, Kupferstichkabinet Berlin, Source: Christian Vöhringer – Pieter Bruegel, 1525/30-1569 Tandem Verlag 2007 (h.f.ullmann imprint) S. 129, public domain, EN Wikipedia “Beekeeping”.

These beehives came in many shapes, some of them like a small dome with a flattened top, others conical with a narrow top like a sugarloaf. It is rarer to see a trunk-shaped hive with a flat top or a bell shape. Most of these hives had a handle formed by the end of the branch under the woven framework, which made it easier to carry and to attach the winter covering of straw.

Several of these hives are illustrated without a flight hole, but most of them have a small opening in the lower part where the basketwork is looser or in the wooden hoop between the sides and the base in the form of a small arch or rectangle. Only conic or bell-shaped baskets have a hole in the lower third in the form of a narrow slit.

Straw hives

These are less frequent than the basketwork hives, and most are found in manuscripts from northern France or Flanders and entirely missing in southern, especially Italian, documents. This is due to the fact that they are connected with cereal-growing, especially rye in more northern areas.

This kind of beehive is mainly made of eight to 10 rows of light-coloured straw twisted into rolls. Depending on the source, this is mainly of well-dried rye straw, the stems of which are far longer than those of other cereal grains, put together in rows and linked up with vertical osier (water willow) ties (occasionally oblique).

Straw hives are usually dome-shaped and fairly small, hardly over some 40 cm. They may be capped by a round or stick-like handle, but most of them have none, in contrast to the wattle hives. They usually have a flight hold at the base, a simple arch in the straw, and more rarely, a rectangular slot in the lower third.

Making traditional beehives called skeps. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 27 June 2004, Creative Commons EN Wikipedia “Beehives”.

Written and ethnographic testimony tells us that these basketwork or straw beehives had a central cross to hold the swarm at the beginning of the comb construction and they could be open at the bottom for work on the colony.

Louis XII, King of France, coming out of the fortress of Alessandria at the head of his army to put down a rebellion in Genoa (January to May 1507). 5th illumination of the manuscript Le Voyage de Gênes (ca. 1500) by Jean Marot. The motto NON UTITUR ACULEO REX CUI PAREMUR means “the King whom we obey does not use his goad”. NB porcupines were also one of the symbols of Louis XII. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abeille#/media/Fichier:Voyage_G%C3%AAnes_Marot_Louis_XII_2.jpg

This diversity of medieval beehives shows us the privileged relationship of human and bee at all times, even if the Middle Ages especially prized beehive products in the domestic economy. This is confirmed in the 14th and 15th centuries by permission for Royal, religious or secular lordly appointment of a bigre, a specialized forestry expert responsible for capturing, for his lordly masters, wild swarms of bees and putting them into productive beehives.

Perrine Mane, Emerita Director of Studies, CNRS (CRH-EHESS) Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, translated and edited by Cozette Griffin-Kremer

* For honeycomb moth (FR teigne) -> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galleria_mellonella and https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galleria_mellonella

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