As last year, just click on the image to the left to be taken to the A-Z website and links to other blogs taking part. Good luck to everyone and I hope the inspiration keeps flowing.
B is for BeeYea, original I know, but I don’t think it’s possible to stress just how important the humble honey bee has been to our various types of civilisations.
For a start the social structure of the hive has been held up as a great example of how cooperation can bring plenty to all. Today we tend to look at the inequalities and so reject it but in times past when inequality was Everyman’s lot it was much easier to draw parallels. The people who left the free and easy life of hunter gatherers or nomadic herdsmen for the close proximity of the city needed to see how they could benefit from knowing their place and working hard.
Then there were the material benefits that the bee hive provided.
The most obvious of these is honey. For centuries honey was the sweetest food item available to mankind, and was cherished accordingly. But it wasn’t just useful for food. Honey has significant anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory effects and was used as a wound dressing, by he Egyptians as an ingredient of embalming fluid and as a preservative. When Alexander the Great died in Babylon, his body was lowered into a casket filled with honey to preserve it on the trip back to Macedon. It was stolen by Ptolemaeus and taken to Memphis in Egypt instead where the body was properly embalmed and placed on display in a glass coffin, which suggests that the honey did its job well.
Honey is being used as a wound dressing today, being particularly useful in the treatment of burns.
At a time when human activity was dictated by the hours of daylight, a reliable source of light was prized. In the south olive oil could be used to make lamps but in the cold north we usually had a choice between dips made from animal fat or beeswax candles. The matrix of hexagonal cells made by the bees is very meltable and mouldable and also burns slowly with a clean flame. Candle making was a huge industry right through to the early years of the 20th century because everyone needed candles, from the expensive six feet long candles of pure beeswax used in the great cathedrals and palaces to the little stubs used to light children to bed. The importance of candles passed into idiom with the phrase “it isn’t worth the candle” meaning that something is pointless – it’s not worth lighting a candle to see to do it.
Beeswax also had a political application. All official documents required a seal of approval to show their legitimacy. In the early medieval period these seals were made from a mixture of beeswax and pine resin. Due to the relatively fragile material these seals were often kept in a specially fitted tin box that would protect the image. As contact improved with the near East the beeswax was replaced with shellac or gum arabic, which gave a harder finish. But high quality beeswax was still used on very special occasions.
The honey bee is now sorely afflicted by virus infection. This is more serious than may initially appear. Honey bees are the major pollinators of food crops. Without their busyness crops will ail, especially of fruit and vegetables, and our diet will suffer. Work is being done to preserve the hives but they are in the decline and many wild populations are extinct. Fingers crossed that some treatment will be available soon for the honey bee – worth her weight in gold.