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Monday, January 05, 2009

Bee History


For Christmas, my sister gave me an absolutely fascinating book on the honeybee -- Sweetness and Light, the mysterious history of the honeybee by Hattie Ellis.

It was amusing as the book was inspired by a visit to the Chain Bridge Honey farm in North Northmberland and my sister found the book near her home in the US.

The book is a treasure trove of snippets about bees as Ellis blends natural history, history, religious symbolism, literature and biology. It was first published in 2004 and so does not touch on CCD (colony collapse disorder) but does deal with the problems of the varroa mite and some of the other difficulties that the modern bee keeper faces.

It needs to be remembered that modern bee keeping, with its movable frames and recognition of the bee space and bee line only dates from the mid 19th century. We really do not know if beekeeping on an industrial scale is truly possible over the very long term, or whether bees are better as a cottage industry. The one very good advance is that bee keepers no longer kill bees to get honey and that honey can be extracted by centrifugal force. The extraction of honey came about when an Austrian army officer noticed what happened when his son played with a bit of comb, and a pail on a string. Before this, the comb had to drip through a cloth and be squeezed.

Until reading the book, I had not realised that neither Australia, New Zealand nor North America had native honey bees who existed in hives. Australia had solitary bees. American Indians called honey bees -- the white man's fly.

I found it very interesting that John Harbison brought the honey bee to California, and basically created the California honey industry. He was also responsible for inventing a process so small squares of honeycomb could be harvested and sold. Growing up, I can remember my mother buying squares of honeycomb in the super market. In the UK, you do not tend to find honey comb on sale in that fashion.

What was also interesting was the changing perception of bees. From its very high status in religion to a symbol for industrialisation and disaffection, and finally once again to the idea that the bee is in fact natural and part of nature. And that honey, particularly local honey which has not been heat treated is useful in treating a number of ailments and diseases. The Greeks believed oil on the outside (remember there was no soap) and honey on the inside did much to promote health.
Anyway, it was a totally charming read where the subject matter is not presented in an overly technical matter.

1 comment:

Kate Hardy said...

Sounds a fascinating read, Michelle.

In the ruins of Caister Castle, you can still see the old bee skeps - they're actually part of the castle wall. Remind me to dredge out a pic for you :o)