There’s good news this week for anyone who likes honey.
Most people know that there’s been a major threat to honey-bees over the past few years from a vicious little parasite, the varroa mite, which invades beehives and can destroy whole colonies by infecting them with a fatal virus. Now scientists have announced an important step forward in understanding the mechanism by which the mites actually wipe out the hives, and though they haven’t yet got the ultimate answer to the danger, they are nearer to finding it.
I like honey, and I like bees. My mother used to keep half-a-dozen hives in our garden when I was small, and I’ve always found them fascinating, not frightening. Our bees knew me, and I knew enough to avoid alarming them by sudden loud noises. They don’t sting unless they must, because it’s a suicide mission for them if they do, and I used to go and talk to them quite often. Yes, talk to them…country people say you should inform your bees of family news, and as a child I always did. It was comforting, especially with bad news. If I’d had a rotten day at school that I didn’t want to tell my parents about, I told the bees instead, and felt better.
In autumn I used to turn the handle of the honey extractor, a machine a bit like a dust-bin with a handle on top. The combs were fixed vertically inside this and when I turned the handle they spun round and round, and the centrifugal force (or is it centripetal?) expelled the clear honey from the wax, and it dripped down to the bottom of the bin. Quite hard work, but very satisfying. I expect there are electric extractors these days.
The Romans knew a lot about keeping bees. Honey was their main form of sweetener, sugar being hardly available at all. They had some odd theories: for instance they thought the head of each hive was a King Bee, and their ideas on how bees reproduced were somewhat weird. But in practice they looked after their hives well, and valued them highly.
Several Roman writers have left us detailed accounts of caring for their bees. One of the best known is by Virgil, who wrote a whole poem on the subject. And he is said to have hidden his valuables in his beehives to keep them from being looted by soldiers. Now that’s a neat idea…not to mention a nice little detail to put into a novel: someone in a crisis using their hives as a safe for the family jewels.
I remember my mother dealing with swarms, using the best ones to set up new hives. She was calm and careful, and wore all-covering clothes and a hat with a veil, so she never got stung. There was an old country rhyme she used to recite:
A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay.
A swam of bees in June is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.
In other words, a new hive needs time to build up honey stocks before the winter comes. I bet the Romans had a similar pearl of wisdom couched in a poem or a proverb. Or maybe not; the flowering season would be longer for most of the Empire than here. Hmmm…something else interesting to look up!