Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Honey Bees & the Gaels

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I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

In many cultures the honey bee is a creature that plays an important role, and this is no different in Gaelic-speaking places. After doing a bit of digging, one could easily find that the Gaels had a close relationship with their honey bees, and this is reflected in song and poetry, folklore and traditions, and even laws. This post will just touch on some of those things.
The utilizing of honey for culinary and healing purposes does have a deep-rooted history in Ireland, which may have been gathered in the wild before people started keeping them domestically. How far back that history goes though I am note entirely sure.

According to A Smaller Social History of Ireland by P.W. Joyce {1906}:
"From the earliest times Ireland was noted for its abundance of honey...The management of bees was universally understood; and every comfortable householder kept hives in his garden. Wild bees, too, swarmed everywhere —much more plentifully than at present, on account of the extent of woodland."
One legend credits Saint Modomnoc  of bringing honey bees to Ireland from Wales in the sixth century. In the essay The Bee, its Keeper and Produce, in Irish and other Folk Traditions by Eimear Chaomhánach it is pointed out that:
"This date of arrival is substantiated by linguistic evidence of native Irish words existing at this time (the 5th and 6th centuries); such as beach (bee), mil (honey), and miodh (mead, i.e., fermented honey served as an alcoholic beverage)." {citation credited to Bechbretha: Old Irish Law-tract on Bee-keeping edited by Fergus Kelly & Thomas Charles-Edwards}
Mead was a prized drink of ancient Irish society, so much so that its main ingredient, honey was sometimes given as tribute to kings. If the feasting hall at Tara {tech midchuarta/mead hall} is any indication, this could push the date back even further {On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish by Eugene O'Curry}.

Prior to the settlement of the Gaels in Scotland, there is evidence of mead being made in the Bronze Age, found in a 1,000 BC burial in Fife. Fast forward a wee bit to the 15th century AD/CE and you find see a different kind of beekeeping in the lovely Rosslyn Chapel; workers renovating the chapel came across a 600 year old beehive that was in the roof. Apparently beehives were hidden up there so the honey would drip down onto the altar.

In Irish Brehon Law there was a tract An Bechbretha or Bee Judgements, a section of law dedicated to the affairs of beekeeping. The Bee Judgements were quite in-depth covering things such as property rights, injury, theft, and maintenance.

One of my favourite parts of the law is the sharing of honey with neighbours, since the bees would no doubt be gathering pollen from nearby gardens and fields that did not belong to the owner of the swarm. The attempt for equitable dispersal did not stop there though.

If someone had found an unclaimed swarm of bees on in someone else's meadow, they could get one quarter of the honey and the property owner would get the remaining amount; if found in a tree in the same circumstance, the finder and owner would get half each. If someone had found a swarm on communal land, they could keep both the bees and honey, giving a one ninth tribute to the tribe leader {A Smaller Social History of Ireland by P.W. Joyce}.

Should a person come by some bees or honey by more dishonest means, they would be penalized. In the case of beehives being raided, Ancient Laws and Institutes of Ireland Vol 1 says that the thief would have had to pay double the value or honour price.

No doubt bees were prized commodities, and not just for getting merry with mead. Besides their honey being used in various recipes and their wax used for moulds and candles, both were valued in healing.

Some examples from the Scottish Highlands of how beeswax and honey were applied in healing can be found in Healing Threads by Mary Beith. Beeswax was a favoured ingredient for making healing ointments and plasters, while honey would sometimes be infused or mixed with herbs for both internal and external use.

Dock roots were boiled and mixed with beeswax and butter to make a healing ointment, and one apparently popular plaster was a combination pine resin, pig fat and beeswax. Ox-eyed daisy infused honey was used for both coughs and wounds and honey-sweetened ground ivy tea was drank to treat coughs and consumption.

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I have come across quite a few sources that talk about the importance of telling the bees of any significant news going on within a family or household, including a birth, wedding, and especially a death. The point of this was apparently to keep bees from feeling offended, because should a household fail to inform the bees, they were said to abandon their hives. This is a tradition that seems to be rooted in both Ireland and Scotland.
From Ireland there is one account of a gentleman making sure his was washed, shaved and wearing his "Sunday best", as if he was heading on over to church before giving his bees the news that his mother had passed away. In Scotland some folks would "put the bees into mourning" by tying black ribbons on the hives after passing on the news of a death {Scottish Customs from Cradle to Grave by Margaret Bennett}.
In the Isle of Man children or their parents would make bumbee cages to catch bumblebees. The bees were thought to be wayward fairies or lost souls that the children should pray for. While the children slept, parents would release the bee and put a pebble in place of it. When the children rose in the morning they would see that the bee was no longer there and that their "prayers had been answered" or that the bumbee had "learned its lesson" and was turned back into a fairy, free in the world again.
To attract a swarm of bees into a hive, there is one recorded Irish method that I am aware of found in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Francesca Speranza Wilde:
"Gather foxglove, raspberry leaves, wild marjorum, mint, camomile, and valerian; mix them with butter made on May Day, and let the herbs also be gathered on May Day. Boil them all together with honey; then rub the vessel into which the bees should gather, both inside and out, with the mixture; place it in the middle of a tree, and the bees will soon come. Foxglove or "fairy fingers" is called "the great herb" from its wondrous properties."
 {In a previous post I have shared an augmented version of this that I use that can be found here.}

Once you have drawn in your bees and harvested your honey, you should give these lovely Irish Mead and Scottish Heather Ale recipes a try!



  1. One of my favourite bits from the early Irish law tracts is that it states that if a woman is experiencing pica (pregnancy cravings), then the owner of a bee swarm should give her some of the honey free of charge, should she require it in order to satisfy the craving.

  2. Now that is a law I could get behind. ;)