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Honey hunting or the opportunistic stealing of honey from wild bee colonies was the defining characteristic of medieval beekeeping. The beginning of true beekeeping was the development of artificial chambers for honeybees to construct comb where the queen could lay eggs, and the workers could gather honey. The Egyptians had mastered apiculture by 2450 BCE, and two thousand years later, beekeeping with horizontal hives had spread all over the Mediterranean region.
From the 13th century onward, the art of beekeeping became a significant part of medieval life. Honey was the main product. However, another product from bees gained more importance as the candle -made from beeswax, became a mainstay of medieval culture. Beeswax was the primary material for making candles used in religious ceremonies. It is no wonder that monasteries became ardent beekeepers simply because they needed beeswax for candle making.
In reality, many monastic orders saw the maintenance of bees and the collecting of their honey as a way to generate cash in addition to the production of food and candle wax. Monasteries are credited with pioneering modern beekeeping practices in England, France, Germany, and most of Europe.
Beekeeping in the Middle Ages
By the Middle Ages, beekeeping was well-established throughout the warmer Mediterranean region. In colder areas, beekeeping faced significant difficulties. However, by Europe’s Middle Ages, honey and beeswax had become important commodities for trade, and beekeeping in skep, log, box, and tree hives flourished to meet the demand.
As beekeeping became more widespread, “bee forests” developed, typically owned by the aristocracy or the Church. These “forests” would have between 100 to 500 tree cavities, and honeybees occupied up to 20 of those cavities at once. Because there was a lot of forage, the number of cavities was not restricted. In medieval Europe, bee forests were crucial to the local economy.
The beehives were, however, spread out throughout the forest, making maintenance time-consuming. In the past, beekeepers would frequently cut down the nesting tree and move the nest to a more convenient location. A wooded apiary would be created with the log resting on the ground or a stone slab. These hives were frequently decorated with intricate paintings and carvings.
How large were Medieval Beekeeping Operations?
Most medieval beekeeping was done on a small scale, with a few hives as part of a farm, but some professional beekeepers had over 100 hives. In the Middle Ages, beekeeping developed to be an economically, socially, and culturally significant practice in much of Europe. Christian religious tradition in Europe drove constant demand for beeswax, while honey was the only widely available sweetener before large-scale sugar imports. As a result, beekeeping became an important part of the rural economy, attracting the participation of a wide range of groups throughout Europe, from peasants with a few hives for small-scale production, to specialized beekeepers producing for a thriving international trade.
By the 17th century, many private citizens had begun to manage and harvest their beekeeping endeavors. By this time, beekeeping knowledge had advanced to the extent that it was possible to become a professional beekeeper. Beekeeping became a recognized profession, and guilds were formed. By this time, honey had become a staple in preparing “sweet treats” and cooking sauces.
Importance of Honey during the Medieval Period
Honey and beeswax were both in high demand in the fourteenth century. Honey was the only food sweetener until enough sugar cane could be sourced from other places (the New World). However, beeswax was the more valuable product. Due to the value attached to honey and beeswax, skep (the beehive back by then) theft was a constant issue. They were small enough to be portable, and several of them were usually kept together, hence stealing was easy.
Honey was primarily used as a food flavoring. It was used to flavor ale and sweeten the porridge that many people began their days with. This was, without a doubt, the most popular use for honey. Often, honey was mixed with vinegar and used as a preservative for foods. Combs were eaten as food as well.
Honey has antiseptic properties and has traditionally been used to aid in wound healing. This application of honey is well documented and continues to be relevant today.
Uses of Wax in Medieval Times
Wax was significantly more valuable than honey. Both were imported and harvested in England, but transporting honey over lengthy distances wasn’t worthwhile because traders needed to make more money from it than they could from wax.
Candle-making was the obvious application for wax. Beeswax produces odorless and pure light, which was especially important in monasteries and churches, which explains why monasteries were leading in beekeeping. The royalty also needed candles in large quantities and some royal estates were also at the forefront of beekeeping to collect beeswax for their candle-making needs. However, the monasteries and monarchical states could only sometimes meet the demand for beeswax, as their efforts at beekeeping were only occasionally successful. A lot of wax was imported into England from the continent to meet the demand for wax candles by royalty, monasteries, and nobles.
Wax, like honey, has medicinal uses and was used in treating a throat abscess, among other things. Pilgrims left wax figures at shrines they visited as a gesture of thanks or as a reflection of their prayers. Wax could be shaped to represent a saint or the reason for the pilgrimage.
The king, his nobles, and the religious leaders used wax for another important purpose. The wax was also used for the official sealing of documents, both secular and religious in nature. The wax was mixed with resin, melted, and attached to documents, after which the king, nobles, and religious persons such as bishops inserted their seals to show their agreement to whatever was in the document.
Charges for Beekeeping in Medieval Times
As much of the Middle Ages dealt with taxation and payment, it should be noted that property owners were quite aware that other people’s bees were carrying off nectar from their fields and gardens. Landowners often collected a fee for honey or beeswax if they could follow the bee’s home. Administrators of counties and towns during this period were mandated to collect fees for beekeeping rights over wild acreage in their jurisdiction.
Equipment used for Beehives during the Medieval Period
Nearly every region had its own style of bee housing, which was typically made of pottery, wood, or cork. In most cases, however, Medieval beehives were conical baskets called skeps. The word derived from the Anglo-Saxon “Skeppa,” which literally means basket. They might be created from long straws that had been coil-stitched with blackberry briar or from woven wicker bands with a daub or clay mud finish.
The skeps were upside-down conical baskets with small holes allowing bees to enter and exit. The skeps had hinged doors or open backs that could be covered until the honey was removed. Skeps were usually kept sheltered since bees don’t like bad weather. As a means of keeping bees, skeps were far from perfect as they could not be examined for wax or honey without disturbing the bees.
Skeps were often protected in the winter by hackles or pointy-shaped straw tents. In the colder north, skeps had to be padded with layers of straw and bark to keep the bees alive over the winter. They were usually built on a layer of wicker, often in the shape of a cone; clay and other materials insulated the outside.
1. Hollow Logs
Bee swarms were occasionally preserved in hollow logs in more remote locations, such as East Germany and Poland. Hollow logs were traditionally carved into ornamental forms by Polish beekeepers during the middle ages, frequently in the form of women wearing large skirts.
The first hives in England were constructed using flexible wood (like willow or hazel) that was weaved around a circle of stakes that linked at the top. They were then covered in “cloom,” which is a concoction of wet cow or ox dung and gravelly soil ashes. This mixture set solidly, waterproofing the hive and sealing it, with only a few small holes for the bees to move in and out.
Beehives were also made using wicker, straw, and reed, twisted into ropes coiled in circles, and stitched with blackberry briars. These coiled materials made the first “skeps.”
Study stone houses called “bee boles” were also crafted for the honeybees in Britain, France, and Belgium. The boles were often set in a garden or orchard for the bees to pollinate the fruits of the trees.
The siting of beehives was temporary and could be moved to avoid unforgiving environmental changes. In Iberia, for example, a cold spring or an excess of fog fostered the transfer of beehives. In Aragón, a region in Spain, it was said that one had to shift hives at least half a league (2.8 km.) for bees not to fly back to their original placement). Periodic conflicts with crops or vineyards could also stimulate the placement of hives in different settings in a given zone, while long-range transhumance to overcome wintry conditions was also undertaken.
Equipment Variance by Region
The equipment required to tend to bees and extract honey and wax similarly varied according to region, reflecting differences in hives and apicultural practice. Several specialized tools were used to harvest beeswax and honey in Iberia, southern France, and Italy, including a large spoon-shaped tool that was watered so honey could easily slide into it. Removing honey in such a way could serve as a provisional measure to allow new space for production, but slicing off combs required longer knives, as depicted in the Exultet rolls of southern Italy.
Some hives required even more specialist equipment: in the case of hives made from wooden frames, the latter had to be removed with what was described as a tempanador in Spanish, a chisel. Nonetheless, sources are generally less specific on the equipment, and refer to broader ‘utensils’ (utensilios) in Castile, or simply to the ‘equipment.’
Use of Smoke in Medieval Beekeeping
Beekeepers in the middle ages also used smoke and various tools to facilitate the ease of accessing the beehive. Using smoke to ‘calm’ the bees makes them less aggressive and makes it easier for a beekeeper to work around the hive without getting stung. Torches were first used to introduce smoke into hives. As time passed, beekeepers adopted new techniques. The smoke was blown into the hive by an assistant using open pots or incense burners.
By the middle ages, tools for smoking hives were quickly developed to direct the smoke into the hive better. The so-called “smoker pots” frequently had one or more handles, a feeding mechanism for the fire, and holes along the sides where the smoke might escape. In the areas bordering the Mediterranean region, these pots were often made of clay. In some monasteries, smoldering barley or wheat stocks later hemp) were placed inside hives to “sedate” the bees in order to remove combs ready for harvesting.
Protective Clothing for Medieval Beekeepers
Protective clothing was mostly unheard of. Honey harvesters, especially the monks tending monastery apiaries, wore heavy robes that helped protect their bodies. The development of protective “basket masks” afforded protection to the face and heads of those handling bees. These devices would evolve into the same facial veils used by modern beekeepers today.
There were guidelines that the beekeeper needed to adhere to in order to avoid upsetting the bees when they ventured out to harvest honey or clean the hive. Beekeepers tending the hives were advised to abstain from sexual relations at least a day before attending to a hive. They were also required never to approach a hive when drunk and only approach the hive after a thorough wash. Beekeepers were to also abstain from all edibles with a strong flavor, such as pickled fish and all the liquids accompanying them, and also from the acrimonious stench of garlic and onions and all other similar things.
Beekeepers were also instructed to take roasted fenugreek flour, mixed with olive oil and wild mallow decoction until it has the consistency of honey, apply it generously to their face and any exposed flesh, take it into their mouths, and blow into the beehive three or four times.
Harvesting Honey in Medieval Beekeeping
Honey harvesting was more of an art, and specific steps were followed, with each region having its own recommended actions. Honey harvesting was more or less a ceremony with very elaborate steps to be followed. It was believed that failure to follow the steps outlined in every region’s folklore would mean the bees would fly away and not return. Several medieval beekeeping writings advised that honey be harvested three times a year: at the start of May, then again in the summer, and finally in autumn, around October, just before the onset of winter.
It was suggested that the harvester should not take away all the honey, otherwise, the bees would become angry and stop working. At least a tenth of the produce of the honey during the first two harvests would be left for the bees, while during the third harvest coinciding with the start of winter, two-thirds would be left for the bees to enable them to survive the winter.
As could be expected, the output of honey per hive depended on the size of the colony and the availability of foliage. However, production was comparable to today’s output, if not more, because of the availability of foliage during those times. The quality of honey was certainly of superior quality as there were no chemical sprays on foliage, unlike today, where bees feed on foliage on which chemicals have often been sprayed.
Quality specifications for honey were also described in many texts. According to many texts on honey processing, good quality honey should be translucent and pale yellow in color, be smooth to the touch, remain in a long string when pulled, readily raised to a point and slow to sink back and thick when it reluctantly separates, and it should have a good aroma.
Medieval Care for Bees
By the Middle Ages, beekeeping was a crude affair when compared to modern times. The science of beekeeping was undergoing rapid development, with monks especially cataloging the activities and behaviors of bees as they observed them. It is important to note that most of the practices that modern beekeepers use today originated during this period. The methods of caring for bees also depended on the region, with practices differing between the colder Northern Europe and the warmer southern Europe.
Keeping bees over the winter was not a problem in the Mediterranean, where it was warmer. However, it was a serious hassle in northern Europe, especially during the winter. Many bee colonies did not survive the harsh winters as little food was provided.
Honey was the bees’ winter food, but the beekeeper planned to harvest it. One solution was to winter over only a select few hives. Beekeepers collected wild swarms in the early summer, and by September, they chose which hives seemed most viable. These lucky bees kept full honeycombs and had their skeps wrapped for winter; they could survive the cold anywhere south of the Arctic Circle. But most of the bee swarms were killed off with thick smoke. By this method, the medieval beekeeper neatly avoided the problem of getting stung while removing honey, since the bees were already dead when the wax was sliced off and honey poured out.
Countries with the Most Medieval Beekeeping
Most beekeeping methods were developed in Russia, Poland, Germany, and the Baltic region, wherever the climate was warm. Beehives were protected in winter by removing them to enclosures and keeping them warm. The insects produced very little, so maximum harvesting went from spring to early Fall in many Countries.
In the Middle Ages, monks at monasteries and abbeys, taking care of the bees, often kept records and drew illuminated pictures of bees in the copied religious works. Many of the modern methods of caring for bees have their origin in the practices developed by monks.
Bees were also fed when the foliage was short, particularly during harsh weather. As food for young bees, wine mixed with honey and leaves of many-flowered savory (to prevent bees from drowning) was prepared and made available to the bees. To feed colonies during extreme cold or hot weather, raisins and many-flowered savory were finely grounded together and together with barley cakes and given to the bees.
Beehive Hygiene and Cleaning in Medieval Beekeeping
When the first ten days of spring passed, bees were driven out to their pastures with the smoke of dried cow dung; then, the hives were swept and otherwise cleaned to get rid of cobwebs and other grit. It was especially important to remove cobwebs as they are an obstacle to movement inside the hive. If there were many combs in the hives, unhealthy-looking ones were removed to eliminate overcrowding.
In many places, particularly in northern Europe’s colder regions, beekeepers broke open their skeps in the spring after killing the bees beforehand, usually with sulfur smoke. In the apiaries run by monasteries, the monks then fervently prayed for new skeps to be repopulated by new colonies. There wouldn’t be a chance for a new colony to form before winter if the honey and wax were extracted any later in the year. The bees would die if they did not have a chance to make winter feed.
Today, thanks to the practices developed in ancient times and thorough to the Middle Ages, the honey or beekeeping industry is thriving. Beekeeping in medieval times differed from the modern beekeeping we are used to. The most important product from hives was however not honey but beeswax that was used in the candle-making industry. However, honey was also widely used as a food sweetener and as a preservative as well as a medication for abscesses, wounds, and other ailments. It is noteworthy that most of the modern beekeeping practices today emanated from this period, particularly from the works of monks from monasteries that practiced medieval beekeeping as a major activity.
- Anna Markland. (2021, October 18). Medieval beekeeping. Anna Markland. Retrieved December 13, 2022, from https://www.annamarkland.com/post/medieval-beekeeeping
- Beekeeping. Stronghold Nation. (n.d.). Retrieved December 13, 2022, from https://www.stronghold-nation.com/history/ref/beekeeping
- Dr. Fani Hatjina. (n.d.). Beekeeping in the Mediterranean from antiquity to the present. Retrieved December 13, 2022, from https://www.evacranetrust.org/page/beekeeping-in-the-mediterranean-from-antiquity-to-the-present
- Medieval beekeeping. Green Man Honey & Avalon Candles. (2019, August 30). Retrieved December 13, 2022, from https://www.greenmanhoney.co.uk/medieval-beekeeping
- Thomas Wildman, A Treatise on the Management of Bees (London, 1768, 2nd edition 1770).