by Justina Hurley
“There’s a very old tradition that you’ve got to tell the bees when anything significant happens.” So says Fr. Simon, the Glenstal Abbey Beekeeper
Ireland has had a long association with bees. The old custom of ‘Telling the Bees’ was to ensure that the bees felt included and part of the family. It was said that if there was a death in the house, particularly of the person who tended the bees, that they must be told immediately. If they weren’t told, then they would pack up and go.
And it was not just death; the old traditions saw bees as so sensitive that not informing them of any significant family changes would cause them to take offence and leave!
In ancient Ireland the bee industry was considered so important that a special section of the Brehon Laws was devoted to it. For example, as bees gather their honey from a wide area, the law was that the owners of the four adjacent farms to the beekeeper were entitled to a certain small proportion of the honey: and after the third year each was entitled to a swarm.
In the past, when honey was a vital part of community living, it was customary to have a hive on either side of the front door. Bees got used to people passing in and out and didn’t attack.
And bees were welcomed. A bee flitting about your garden or house was seen as a bringer of luck and to have a swarm come to your land was akin to winning the lottery. In fact in the early days of Christianity, tracking a swarm of bees was one of the few activities the church allowed on Sundays.
It’s remarkable that before scientific evidence existed, our ancient ancestors knew instinctively that they needed the bees far more than the bees needed them. Now we have scientific studies and they show that without the bee we could very easily face large-scale famine, and yet we treat them like pests. We moan when they invade a garden and call to have them removed if we find a hive near our homes. Insecticides used on the land are decimating the wild bee populations and environmental issues and climate change are putting all the colonies under pressure.
Yet the bee is still absolutely vital to many species, not just us humans. 90% of flowering plants depend on insects for pollination and a very high percentage of those plants depend directly on bees. From clover, so essential to bind nitrogen in the soil, to oilseed rape, fruit, some nuts, onions, beet, cabbage and other vegetables, the list is endless.
For example, carrots are grown from seed, so you might not see the direct relevance of the bee, but without the bee no seeds are produced. It is estimated that one third of all we eat depends on the activities of bees.
Expert beekeeper, Tim Rowe, who is based in West Cork, Ireland, is a Beekeeping Instructor and the creator of a new method of beekeeping called the Rose Hive Method and author of The Rose Hive Method, a book which explains the principles behind the Rose Hive.
According to Tim: “Good beekeeping skills and bees that are left enough of their own honey so that they are never fed artificial sugars are key to a quality honey.”
Tim has been keeping bees since the age of 14 and designed the Rose Hive, when he realized that conventional beekeeping methods had been stifling the bees’ best efforts to stay healthy and productive.
Ordinary hives have two different sized boxes, while Rose Hives have just one size box and do not have a queen-excluder. In this way the brood-nest is not restricted in any way, and the colony can move about within the hive and make the choices that suit them best.
“The Rose Hive method is based on working more closely with the bees,” he says. “To give them space and allow and encourage them to do what they want to do. They have been doing this for long before we intervened and they are expert at it.”
Tim understands the old traditions and claims that, unlike the monks, he doesn’t talk to his bees! But he definitely listens to them as his hive design is based on an innate respect for their needs and his expertise on bees is recognized far and wide.
“Well the reason for those old traditions,” Tim explains, “is that in times past people were aware of the importance of bees but didn’t fully understand why they were so important. They knew that life with bees was good and life without not so good. And if the beekeeper died and the new person didn’t know as much about bee keeping then naturally the bees might move on.
“But now we know why bees are so important,” he says. “We need bees. They don’t need us to do what they do, but they do need their natural habitat to be maintained so that they can survive and thrive.”
So no, I don’t talk to the bees in that way as I believe that we are very peripheral to their lives. But they can sense danger and they can get used to us too. In the past, when honey was a vital part of community living, it was customary to have a hive on either side of the front door. Bees obviously got used to people passing in and out and didn’t attack.
Well sourced honey is a wonderful health food and while we may not all want to keep hives, we can help the bees to thrive and survive. Tim offers the following advice:
- Don’t spray insecticide. You might be protecting this year’s crop but the long term outcome of insect free farmland is zero crops.
- Allow for some wildflower patches.
- Sycamore flowers, blackberry flowers, trees and hedgerows are vital. Try to leave as much of this in place as possible.
- If an old tree is on your land is it absolutely necessary to remove it? Bees like to nest in old tree cavities.
- Keep a look out for swarms and contact your local bee keeper if you have one on your land. They are actually very valuable!
Honey around the world
- In Hinduism, honey (Madhu) is one of the five elixirs of immortality. The Vedas and other ancient literature mention the use of honey as a great medicinal and health food.
- In Jewish tradition, honey is a symbol for the new year, Rosh Hashanah. Pure honey is considered kosher even though it is produced by a flying insect, a nonkosher creature;
- The Book of Exodus famously describes the Promised Land as a “land flowing with milk and honey
- In Buddhism, honey plays an important role in the festival of Madhu Purnima a festival celebrated by giving honey to monks.
- The Qur’an promotes honey as a nutritious and healthy food.*
Honey as Medicine
- Honey has been used orally and topically to treat gastric disturbances, ulcers, wounds, burns, bacterial infections and more recently MRSA.
- Antibacterial properties of honey are the result of the low water activity causing osmosis, chelation of free iron, its slow release of hydrogen peroxide, high acidity, and the antibacterial activity of methylglyoxal.
- Manuka Honey is particularly effective against MRSA
- Honey appears to be effective in killing drug-resistant biofilms which are implicated in chronic rhino sinusitis.*
- In folk medicine it is said that to help with allergies that honey sourced from bees local to the area in which you live is the best honey to use.
For more on Tim Rowe please visit his site www.rosebeehives.com and watch a video of Tim showing a Rose Hive below: