Tag Archives: beekeeping

Bees in Egypt of the Pharaohs

In Ancient Egypt honey bees seemed to have been of great significance during all periods – as decoration or motif in various contexts as well as icon within the religious and mythological sphere. In addition to that, bees also seemed to have been devoted as a symbol of the royal status and were applied in correlation with high-ranking officials. The practical use of bee products like wax and honey (apart from consumption) ranged from diverse applications within the fields of cosmetology or medical therapy to the utilization as an indispensable adjuvant for the mummification process.  

Im Alten Ägypten schienen Honigbienen durchweg von großer Bedeutung gewesen zu sein – als Dekoration oder Motiv in unterschiedlichen Kontexten sowie als Symbol und Ikone im religiösen und mythologischen Bereich. Darüber hinaus scheinen Bienen als Zeichen des königlichen Status zu dienen und wurden auch im Zusammenhang mit hochrangigen Beamten genutzt. Die praktische Verwendung von Bienenprodukten wie Wachs und Honig (abgesehen vom Verzehr) reichte von diversen Anwendungen im Bereich der Kosmetik oder bei Heilverfahren bis hin zur Verwendung als unverzichtbares Hilfsmittel für den Mumifizierungsprozess.  

beekeeping – ancient egypt – honeybee – honey – symbolism

Bee in the royal name: “he who belongs to the sedge and the bee” (nesout-bity)

Egyptians may well have gathered the honey of wild bees in the prehistoric period. As early as the first dynasty, the rare inscriptions conserved show us that the canonical titles of the Pharaoh mention “he who belongs to the sedge and the bee” (nesout-bity), that is, the symbols respectively of Upper and Lower Egypt. Beekeeping is then attested in the Old Kingdom: a bas-relief of the funerary temple of the Pharaoh Nyuserre in Abusir (Fifth Dynasty, around 2500 BCE) represents peasants busying themselves around beehives. A royal collar found at Saqqara and belonging to Queen Hetepheres, the mother of Khufu (Cheops), has a handsome bee décor. Much later in the New Kingdom (1580-1054 BCE), several beekeeping motifs are to be found in the tombs of high-ranking civil officers, as in that of the Vizier Rekhmire in Thebes showing honey being taken from the hive, as well as filling and sealing jars of honey.

Gathering honey, Relief from Royal Sun Temple of Abu Ghorab built by Pharoah Nyuserre Ini (after G. Kritsky)
Gathering honey tomb of noble and vizier Reckhmirê (painting by Nina de Garis Davies, 1881–1965)

Later still, a bas-relief from the Saite period of the 26th Dynasty in the tomb of the high-ranking civil officer Pabasa in Thebes (26th Dynasty, around 700 BCE) shows peasants lifting a beehive. In the Greek period of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, papyrus fragments mention it is necessary to change the position of beehives twice a year so that bees can forage in favourable areas with plenty of flowers. The Greek papyri of Zenon, the manager of the estates of the diocetus (minister of the economy) Apollonios in the 3rd century BCE tells us about economic management and honey production, transport, storage and uses.

Tomb of Pabasa (26th Dynasty) gathering honey

According to some of the medical papyri (among them, the Ebers papyrus), honey was utilised in various compositions as a softener or an adjuvant and it was also an ingredient in cosmetics. Honey and wax were likewise indispensable in mummifying processes.

In mythology and religion, the bee was associated with the goddess Neith of the city of Sais in the Western Nile Delta, one of the creation goddesses (also a divinity of the hunt and of war). Some inscriptions also refer to Rê, God of the sun, whose tears, when they fell to earth, were transformed into bees, who created wax.


Catherine Chadefaud
French agrégée in History
Doctorate in Egyptology and Historical Geography (ancient Egyptian climate and vegetation)

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Commercial bumblebee breeding in Norway

Norway was early in starting to produce bumblebees for use in tomato cultivation in commercial greenhouses. This niche production is relatively complicated and therefore requires good knowledge and precise work. The Department for Agriculture was concerned that importing bumblebees could lead to importing of sicknesses and to genetic pollution of native Norwegian bumblebees. This article describes the start of bumblebee production in Norway and gives a technical description of the process of bumblebee rearing.

bumblebee – breeding – Norway – beekeeping – pollination

In Norway there are 35 species of bumblebee, out of a total of around 250 species worldwide. Bumblebees belong to the family of bumblebees and other bees, called Apidae. It is the large earth bumblebee (or buff-tailed bumblebee), Bombus terrestris, which dominates in commercial bumblebee rearing, both in Norway and internationally.

It started in 1989

The idea and enthusiasm for starting up commercial rearing of Norwegian-produced bumblebees came from The Norwegian Beekeeping Society’s General Secretary, Trond Gjessing together with Rogaland County Council’s Chief Agronomist, Ketil Fuglestad. Due to their positions, the pair acted as coordinators, assistants and initiative takers, but they did not provide technical assistance; this was provided by biologist Atle Mjelde.

It started with a public body, The Bee Sickness Committee, of which Trond Gjessing was secretary. They received a request from The Department for Agriculture with respect to the importing of bumblebees to Norway. They were particularly concerned with the problem of taking insects over the border, and the effects this would have on the genetic heredity of Norway’s native population.

In 1991 The Norwegian Beekeeping Society arranged a meeting inviting key people to attend. They had arranged for a Dutch speaker to hold a presentation on this niche area of production: the commercial rearing of bumblebees. The speaker was Ard de Ruijter, Director of The Research Center for Insect Pollination and Beekeeping. Ketil Fuglestad, Rogaland County Council’s Chief Agronomist, took part in the meeting and says himself that he was excited by the possibility of Norwegian bumblebee production, and that Ruitjer was very inspiring. Ruitjer’s experience from Holland, was that it was beekeepers who were most successful at rearing queens. Some in the professional community believed that it was easier for beekeepers to take care of the bumblebees, because they understood how sensitive they are. One must learn the signals given by the bumblebees and be able to interpret their behaviour.

Pollinering Service Company

In 1991 beekeepers Karl Ivar Stangeland and Egil Fosse established the company “Pollinering Service ANS” and thereby started Norwegian bumblebee production. They were the only company in Norway engaged in bumblebee rearing up until the year 2000. At that time two new companies started up, and all three of them were based in Jæren in Rogland.

Pollination in Norwegian commercial greenhouses has gone from manual pollination to Norwegian production of bumblebee colonies. This change has meant that tomatoes have become a much better commodity. Tomatoes have many seeds, and if the tomatoes are to swell to be round and even, they must be pollinated evenly inside the flower – this is the job of the bees. Bumblebee production has meant that several different growers have been able to use bees for pollination, and this has lead til a reduction in the use of chemical spraying in fruit and berry production.

Ban on import of bumblebees to Norway.

Since as early as 1991 it has been forbidden to import bumblebees in to Norway. There were two important reasons given by professionals in the field, for not allowing the import of bumblebees. The first was the risk of importing disease and parasites and the second was the danger of genetic pollution. The latter problem was a particular concern for The Department for Agriculture. The initiative to start up rearing of bumblebees in Norway came from Rogaland County Council and The Norwegian Beekeeping Society.

How is the bumblebee colony produced?

To understand the challenges of rearing bumblebees, you need to have a good understanding of ecology and not least a good understanding of bumblebee biology.

The large earth bumblebee comes out of hibernation in the spring

After pairing, the large earth bumblebee queen goes in to hibernation for the winter. She digs a hole in the earth in autumn to protect her from the frost, but she makes sure that the hole will not be in full sunlight. That is to say, she finds a place where spring will not come too early.

After coming out of hibernation the bumblebee queen is alone at first and is therefore very busy. First she has to find a site for a nest. She builds herself up by gathering nectar. She makes circular honey pots from wax for storing nectar, pollen and eggs. When the store of nectar and pollen is big enough, she lays the first egg.

Bumblebees can’t eat dry pollen: they need extra nectar to moisten it. Unlike other bees, bumblebees do not have salivary glands. They therefore chew a mixture of pollen and nectar, swallow it and then regurgitate the mixture as food for the larvae. The queens, drones and workers all die before the winter; only the queens that have mated and that have dug themselves down under the earth, survive the winter.

How is this done in commercial rearing?

A new colony is started with a queen in a starting case, which is about 5 cm x 10 cm in size. To get the queen to lay eggs, live drone pupae are used. The drone pupae are taken from a larger bumblebee colony. The bumblebee queen will warm up and brood the pupae. When she has eaten enough pollen, she will start to lay eggs. The queen is given fresh pollen every third day, and it is the new pollen that stimulates her to lay eggs. After the first pupae have hatched, the worker bees start to feed the larvae and from there the colony usually develops quickly.

The best way that has been found to get the bumblebee queen to lay eggs, is to mate them in autumn and winter. Thereafter they are put in to hibernation for four months at a temperature of +4°C.

Starter case. The queen has laid eggs and is brooding them. The temperature rises to minimum + 30 °C. Bee feed is in the glass and pollen in the food bowls.

Bumblebee queens are cooled to + 4°C

When the case containing the queens is taken out of the cold room, following 4 months of hibernation, the queens are fed with pollen and a sugar solution, and they soon come back to life. Their ovaries start to grow and the queens must be separated within a couple of days. If not, they get angry and start to attack each other.


To avoid in-breeding it is important to constantly renew the breeding stock. If there are several queens that are to be fertilised all from one nest, it is important to use drones from a nest that is not related. It is important to take the queens out from the cold room at exactly the right time, so that they can be mated with the right drones.

To make sure that the queens being used for breeding don’t start to stagnate, the newly born queens need to be taken out each day and fed with pollen and sugar solution, for a period of five days, before they are put together with the drones for mating.

Shelf 1: two cases with queens, ready to be put in to the mating case. Shelf 2: large cases that will later on be delivered to greenhouses. Shelves 3 and 4: small cases labelled with the queen’s number and life-history, such as the date the first egg was hatched and when the first worker bee appeared. The pink light in the room reduces the bumblebees’ sight, making them less active.

The picture shows mating in progress, with the queen over and the drone under. They hang together like this for about 30 minutes.

Life in the bumblebee colony is dynamic.

The queen uses pheromones to exercise full control over the worker bees in the first weeks. The more eggs the queen lays in this period, the stronger the colony will be. At a set point in the development of the colony, activity goes over to the production of gendered individuals, that is drones and queens. After this point the queens reduce the production of pheromones that hinder egg laying by the worker bees. Some of the workers start to lay eggs, but the queens eat most of the eggs laid by the workers. If the queen is strong enough to lay enough eggs to keep the worker bees occupied with feeding only larva hatched from them, the colony will last longer.

If the queen shows signs of weakness, which is to say she lays too few eggs, the workers can kill the queen and take over control of the nest. The dominant workers stress the others, fighting, killing and threatening. In this phase, before the ranking within the workers has been established, the nest should not be sold, as the workers will not be effective.

The nest is ready for the greenhouse.

When a nest is delivered to the greenhouse, it contains between 200 and 400 worker bees. Some greenhouses buy a new nest every month. Despite the fact that a nest can last from 7 to 8 weeks, they want to have a period of overlapping. This means that they have several nests simultaneously. It is important to make sure that the colonies are not too large in relation to the greenhouse, as the workers can be too hard on the pollen anther and style, causing them damage.

Nest ready for delivery. About 200 worker bees, 70 worker pupae, a cluster of drone pupae and a cluster of larve that will become either drones or queens.


Knut G. Austad
PB 250, 4367 Nærbø

A little follow up on our blogpost on beekeeping in Slovenia

On June 29th, we posted a very interesting report on beekeeking in Slovenia by our fellow AIMA member Barbara Sosič (follow this link to the blog post here: https://www.agriculturalmuseums.org/2020/06/29/poetry-of-agriculture-on-the-significance-of-beekeeping-in-slovenia/ )

About a month later, BBC reel published yet another interesting aspect of slovenian beekeeping which we want to bring to your attention:


(Please note, that we are not responsible for the content of external links; we will regularly check if the link is still valid)

How to do bee business despite Covid-19? Some practical and personal experience from Firestone Farm, Dearborn, Michigan


While the global pandemic disrupts our routines, those who care for livestock, including domesticated honey bees, must continue care without disruption. Patrice Fisher, the beekeeper at Firestone Farm, reports that bees are thriving at the living history farm within Greenfield Village, The Henry Ford, in Dearborn, Michigan, as of 4 June and 6 July 2020.

Während die globale Pandemie unsere täglichen Routinen durcheinanderbringt, müssen diejenigen, die sich um Nutztiere kümmern – und hierzu zählt auch die domestizierte Honigbiene – die Versorgung der Tiere ungehindert sicherstellen. Patrice Fisher, die Imkerin von Firestone Farms, berichtet, wie die Bienen sich in der Living History Farm innherhalb Greenfield Village, The Henry Ford, in Dearborn Michigan im Zeitraum vom 4. Juni bis 6. Juli 2020 entwickeln.


pandemic – beekeeping – Living History Farm – practical experience – beekeeping tools

Pollinator and common comfrey [Symphytum officinale] in Greenfield Village, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Mighican. July 2017. Photograph by Lee Cagle.

Livestock need care daily despite the disruptions of a global pandemic. This includes domesticated honey bees. Beekeepers inspect their hives, monitor the food supply, harvest honey, and treat what may ail members of the colony. Patrice Fisher, the beekeeper at Firestone Farm, shares this report on the condition of hives at the living history farm within Greenfield Village, The Henry Ford, in Dearborn, Michigan, on 4 June and with a 6 July 2020 update.

Beekeepers inspect historically appropriate Langstroth-type hives in the orchard at Firestone Farm, Greenfield Village, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan, August 2017. Photograph by Lee Cagle.

Beekeepers at Firestone Farm use a Langstroth-type hive to house pollinators at the living history farm that interprets the birthplace of Harvey Firestone and farm life during the mid-1880s. The structures were originally located in Columbiana County, Ohio, but were relocated and reconstructed in Greenfield Village, and opened to the public in 1985. The project included an orchard with historic apple varieties. The bees pollinate the apples and other crops, shrubs, and flowering plants throughout Greenfield Village.

The Langstroth-type hives in the orchard at Firestone Farm, with weights to stabilize the hive covers. Beekeepers installed the support timbers for the hives to elevate them above the ground on 25 March 2020. Photograph by Patrice Fisher on 4 June 2020.

Lorenzo Langstroth observed bee behavior and patented a hive in 1852 that mimicked the spaces that bees created as they built their comb within hives. Langstroth designed a structure that consisted of stackable “supers” into which frames of a standard dimension were inserted, each located a “bee space” from the other. Within this structure, bees constructed their hives to nurture the bee larvae and store their honey food supply.

Tools of the beekeepers’ trade, a smoker and soft-bristle brush, 4 June 2020. The smoker, of a design in use since the late 1800s, disrupts bees’ ability to sense the fight pheromone. Photograph by Patrice Fisher.

Firestone beekeepers had three objectives to accomplish during their 4 June hive inspection:

1) to replace the solid bottom boards with screened boards for better ventilation.

2) to apply a formic acid treatment for varroa mites. At the last hive inspection on 25 April, beekeepers did a mite count test and determined that #1 hive (closest to barn) had 8 mites per 300 bees, #2 had 0 mites, and #3 had 4 mites per 300 bees. That’s not terrible but definitely needed to be addressed before the numbers started increasing exponentially.

3) to add an additional super with empty frames to each hive to give bees in each hive more room.

Beekeepers practice state-of-the-art bee care within the historic setting. They installed this screen base to increase air circulation on 4 June 2020. Photograph by Patrice Fisher.

This photograph shows the pads treated with formic acid to treat for varroa mites nailed into the sides of a hive frame, 4 June 2020. Photograph by Patrice Fisher.

Inspection determined that the bees are doing fabulously. All three hives have a lot of bees and all have surplus honey already during springtime in Dearborn, Michigan. Patrice indicated that “This is the best I’ve seen for this time of the year in the five years I’ve been minding these bees. We were wondering if they were somehow benefiting from the lack of people in the vicinity and perhaps reduced landscaping, resulting in a lot more forage in their territory. Just supposition. We didn’t really look too deeply into the hives; it was obvious that they are all thriving.”

Photograph of notebook documenting 4 June 2020 inspection. Photograph by Patrice Fisher.

Beekeepers saw capped supercedure cells in every hive (photographs below). These cells were simultaneously attached to the bottom of one super and the top of the one below it. Maintaining the hive requires removing supers, even as this also can destroy some of these cells because the supers must be separated to get to the bottom layer.

The Master Farmer of Greenfield Village, Steve Opp, reported a swarm of bees just before the 4 June inspection. Beekeepers tried to figure out which hive they came from, but it seemed as though they could have come from any hive. They added an additional empty super to each hive to give the bees more room, hoping that increasing the hive capacity will quell the bees’ natural inclination to swarm. Yet, Patrice reported that she is “happy to see swarms even if we can’t catch them – it just means more native bees are being introduced into the environment.”

The Firestone Farm beekeepers returned to the hives on 6 July 2020, with two goals:

  • to remove the medicated formic acid pads attached 4 June
  • remove the entrance reducer and take out the solid bottoms from each hive, to improve ventilation.
  • document the visit and actions taken in writing

They found the hives buzzing with activity, and bee “making honey like crazy. The empty supers added last month are already full, so the keepers added another empty super to each hive, right above the level where the bulk of the brood was residing” (see notes taken, and location of new super documented below).

The documentation of the 6 July 2020 Firestone beekeepers’ visit, actions taken, and location of empty supers added to hives.

At the end of July the beekeepers will do another sugar roll test to monitor the mites and see if treatments continue having the desired effect. Toward the end of summer, after honey production slows late in July and before golden rod starts to bloom in the early fall, they will harvest some of the honey, probably 3 supers full. Then the bees can rebuild their food supply with pollen from the fall flowers before frost ends the growing season. Beekeepers will winterize the hives late in the fall to help sustain them through the winter season.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

 Submitted by Patrice Fisher, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan

Poetry of agriculture? On the Significance of Beekeeping in Slovenia

Slovenia is home to excellent beekeepers and the indigenous Carniolan bee. Beekeeping is one of the oldest traditional activities and an important part of Slovenia’s identity, natural and cultural heritage. It is a kind of a national hobby; there are 5 beekeepers per 1000 inhabitants in a population of just two million, together around 11.000. The Slovenian landscape is adorned by nearly 14,000 apiaries, containing around 200,000 hives with bees that collect quality honey and other products.  

Slowenien ist die Heimat exzellenter Imker und der einheimischen Kärntner Biene. Imkerei ist eine der ältesten traditionellen Kulturpraktiken und wichtiger Teil slowenischer Identität sowie des natürlichen und kulturellen Erbes. Es ist eine Art nationales Hobby; es gibt 5 Imker pro tausend Einwohner bei einer Bevölkerung on gerade mal zwei Millionen; zusamengenommen also etwa 11.000. Die slowenische Landschaft ist geschmückt durch annähernd 14.000 Bienenstände, die etwa 200.000 Beuten enthalten und deren Bienen Qualitätshonig und andere Produkte produzieren.

Slovenija je domovina odličnih čebelarjev in avtohtone krajnske čebele. Čebelarjenje je eno najstarejših tradicionalnih dejavnosti in s tem pomemben del slovenske identitete ter naravne in kulturne dediščine. Lahko bi rekli, da je čebelarjenje nacionalni hobi, saj imamo v le dvomilijonski državi kar 5 čebelarjev na 1000 prebivalcev, skupaj jih je okoli 11.000. Slovensko pokrajino bogati skoraj 14.000 čebelnjakov z okoli 200.000 panjev s čebelami, ki nabirajo kakovosten med in druge pridelke.

Beekeeping – Carniolan bee – bee hives – urban beekeeping – transporting bees

An apiary under Golica mountain. Photo by Franc Šivic.

Beekeeping in the 18th and 19th centuries was marked by outstanding figures

Successful beekeeping has always been based on thorough knowledge of bees, ingenious beekeeping techniques, dictated by the local foraging conditions, and especially on the Carniolan bee and its excellent characteristics. Of key importance to the progress of beekeeping were several figures, who with an enthusiasm based on great human qualities taught sensible beekeeping to simple peasants, and at the same time spread their knowledge about the Carniolan bee and beekeeping to the wider world.

The most outstanding among them was Anton Janša (1734 – 1773), an excellent beekeeping theoretician and practitioner, and the first teacher of the subject at the Beekeeping School in Vienna. His birthday, May 20, was chosen as World Bee Day from 2018 onwards on the initiative of Slovenia.

Another figure highly important for the development of Slovenian beekeeping was the priest Peter Pavel Glavar (1721 – 1784), the founder of the first beekeeping school in Slovenia. He was among the first to write a treatise on bees in Slovene.

The Tyrolean natural scientist and physician Joannes Antonius Scopoli (1723 – 1788) was active in the Slovene territory and was the first to inform the world that the queen bee mates with drones outside the beehive.

The great beekeeping expert and first Carniolan bee trader Emil Rothschütz (1836 – 1909) was instrumental to promoting the Carniolan bee.

Anton Janša (1734 – 1773), the first teacher of modern beekeeping in Vienna. A Yugoslav stamp from 1973.

The pride of Slovenia – the Carniolan bee

The Carniolan bee, Apis mellifera carnica, is a Slovene indigenous bee species that originated in the area of the Balkan Peninsula, and for historical reasons, its homeland is held to be Slovenia. The species also lives in Carinthia and Styria in Austria, in Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Serbia; it has been artificially introduced in Germany and in many other places. Following the Italian bee, the Carniolan bee is the second most common bee species in the world.

The Carniolan bee has excellent characteristics: it is gentle, industrious, and long-lived, does not stray into other beehives, overwinters well, consumes little stored food, multiplies quickly in spring, efficiently builds combs, thoroughly exploits rich pastures, especially forest ones, has a well-developed cleaning instinct, making it less susceptible to diseases, and is very good at orientation and swarming.

A worker bee, a queen bee and a drone of the Carniolan bee, Apis millifera carnica. Photo by Franc Šivic.
Carniolan bee, Apis millifera carnica. Photo by Franc Šivic.

Why do the Slovenes keep their bees in hives grouped in apiaries?

The principal reason for this method of beekeeping are the AŽ-hives (AŽ stands for Alberti-Žnideršič). Slovenes are very attached to their bees and make sure that they dwell in dry, warm hives, protected against the cold, heat, and bad weather by the apiary’s shelter. Apiaries differ from one region to another and Slovenes are most proud of the Slovene Apiary which has preserved its typical form for centuries. It derives from Central Slovenia and was described by Anton Janša in his book Popolni nauk za vse čebelarje (The Perfect Theory of Beekeeping) in 1772. These apiaries were mostly built by self-taught craftsmen, based on knowledge passed on by their ancestors and enriched with their own experiences, discoveries, and creativity.

The traditional Slovene beehive is thus an AŽ leaf hive. Beekeepers claim that it is the beehive best suited to our climate and foraging conditions. It was introduced by Anton Žnideršič in the early 20th century and is by far the most popular type of beehive, since over 90% of all beekeepers use one of its variants. It is also spreading elsewhere around the world. The AŽ-beehive is very handy for transporting bees to different pastures, as well.

A typical Slovenian apiary in Arboretum Volčji potok. Photo by Franc Šivic
Beekeepers inside of their apiaries inspecting bee colonies. Photo by Franc Šivic.

Painted beehive panels are a specific Slovene phenomenon

The painted front panels of the formerly plain kranjič hives are part of Slovene cultural heritage that almost every Slovene is familiar with. They are a genuinely original Slovene cultural element. After emerging as a genre of folk art, largely created by and for members of the peasant classes, in a part of the Slovene ethnic territory in the mid-18th century, the custom peaked between 1820 and 1880, to decline due to socio-economic and religious conditions in the early 20th century.

An apiary with painted beehive panels near Radovljica. Photo by Franc Šivic.
Adam and Eve in Paradise, a painted beehive panel from 1860. Collection of the Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana. Photo by Marko Habič.
Adam and Eve in Paradise, a painted beehive panel from 1860. Collection of the Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana. Photo by Marko Habič.

Beekeeping in towns

Urban beekeeping is not something new or exceptional in our towns, but the practice has recently seen a revival around the world, including in Slovenia. The bees can produce quality and above all pristine honey in our towns, since there are no areas affected by phytopharmaceutical products. Apiaries, but more often stands of box hives, are set up on the roofs of commercial buildings, on balconies, or in gardens.

Beekeeping is above all a relaxation activity for townspeople. It provides them with bee products and contact with nature close to their home, contributing to their well-being and a quality “green way of living”.

Urban beekeeping on the roof of Cankarjev dom Congress and Cultural Centre in Ljubljana city centre. Photo by Luka Dakskobler .
An apiary in the garden of the famous Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik.Photo by Doris Kordić.

Transporting bees to pastures  

Transporting bees from places with poor pastures to better ones, especially forest pastures, is a centuries-old tradition in Slovenia, which also spread elsewhere in the late 18th century thanks to Anton Janša.

There are indeed no places in Slovenia that would provide enough pasture for an entire beekeeping season. Transporting bees is above all of economic importance, as it allows beekeepers to exploit the honeydew produced by some insects on plants at different times and in different places. The practice requires special knowledge and skills and these are continuously being improved.

Transport of beehives to forest pastures in 1928. Slovene Ethnographic Museum Photo archive.
Transporting bees to different pastures is very common in Slovenia today. Photo by Barbara Sosič.

Bees and bee products have a beneficial effect on people

Beekeepers increasingly adapt their apiaries into apitherapy rooms, where people can inhale the healing aromatic air produced by the hives. Apiaries are thus no longer merely small or large structures protecting bees, but have been turned into refuges for the well-being of body and mind. Bee products like honey, propolis (bee glue), pollen, wax, and royal jelly have a beneficial effect on health, while apitherapy with bee-venom seems to be effective in treating rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases.

Apitherapy in an apiary for inhaling beneficial aromatic beehive air. Photo by Franc Šivic.

Barbara Sosič, Slovene Ethnographic Museum, Ljubljana

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