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Honeybees, Abolition, and the Homefront

The closer we examine the honey bee, the more we realise the workings of a beehive encompass territories beyond our comprehension.  from Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

That Tolstoy knew a thing or two about bees, or I guess he didn’t which is rather the point. This week we will enter new territory by combining two of our hives in advance of end of season varroa treatment.

Our experience with the hive-combining will be the subject for the next post. This post represents some bee ‘shoutouts’ I have come across in the past few months, a kind of “cherchez l’abeille” (as opposed to “cherches la reine des abeilles” which is what we do for the most part during inspection)*. I read a lot of nonfiction-journals, books-and am always pleasantly surprised by references to bees along side what initially appears to be unrelated topics. Some examples I have blogged about in the past include Jersey during WWIIStalingrad, an “end poverty” campaign in California.

Une Abeille Noire (Apis Mellifera Mellifera) (By Emmanuel Boutet (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

In keeping with that theme, I offer the following.

Bees and the first consumer boycott

According to Edith Johnson in Standpoint, “During 1791-92, more than 300,000 people [in Britain] chose not to buy sugar as a protest against the slave trade — the first large-scale consumer boycott.” But how could they drink their tea? Make pies and other sweets? The answer is or was honey. It really was the most obvious choice, along with fruits, of substitution for sugar. Of course, whether honey production, such as it was at the time, could sustain demand was an important issue for consideration. Although the boycott did not have the desired effect on slavery, there were other results:

…the boycott not only mobilised and integrated women as a crucial force within the abolition movement, but it also revealed to women (and men) that the decisions they made when shopping for groceries, or serving tea, or making a pudding, were not insignificant. Rather, those quotidian choices really mattered…

To read more on the boycott, and the involvement of English poets in particular, see the Economist article, “Sugar: Sick with the excess of sweetness.”

Bees’ Army

I bet you hadn’t figured on bees being part of the war effort and as such recipients of government subsidy? I learned about this in, of all places, a biography of the writer, Penelope Fitzgerald, by Hermione Lee (a highly sympathetic biography, but always compelling because of the roller coaster ride that was Fitzgerald’s life, which is probably why she did not start writing and publishing until her 60s). It was only a brief mention about Fitzgerald’s stint at the British Ministry of Food in 1940: “Penelope spent her time sending messages to the British Beekeepers Association, answering abusive letters about tea shortages, and writing articles on ‘communal feeding’.”  Now, how about that for a tease? Of course, I had to find out more and managed to uncover more information on the British Beekeepers Association’s website, of all places:

During the two World Wars, the BBKA was successful in persuading government to grant extra sugar rations to beekeepers, as honey was recognised to be an important foodstuff. This in turn stimulated public interest in beekeeping and in 1970 there were 32,000 beekeepers in England and Wales.

Packing food for the Ministry of Food (cod liver oil, not honey) (This photograph was scanned and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence.)

 On the discussion forum, further information is provided:

In 1943, the Ministry of Food recognised that a nation of amateur bee-keepers would be beneficial, and announced that every household keeping bees could claim 10lb of sugar for feeding bees in the winter, and 5lb in the summer. With hives able to produce up to 60lbs of sugar a year for very little cost, bee-keeping soon became a popular activity.

After a while, however, the government established that honey yields weren’t tallying with the amount of sugar being supplied for the scheme. A plan to dye the bee-keepers’ sugar green was soon abandoned after bees started producing off-putting green honey.

The BBC on its WW2 People’s War website mentions the funny-colored honey and also how honey was used for barter.

Sing us out…

Speaking of poets, it is the 150th anniversary of John Clare’s death who, according to the Society website, “is regarded as one of the most important poets of the natural world.” So, it’s not unusual that a honey bee would be lurking in on or two of his poems, even in the title. I will quote just a few snippets:

Wild Bees

These children of the sun which summer brings
As pastoral minstrels in her merry train
Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings
And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again.

And aye so fond they of their singing seem
That in their holes abed at close of day
They still keep piping in their honey dreams,
And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe
Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods
Where tawny white and red flush clover buds
Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe,
Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food
To these sweet poets of the summer fields…

Summer Images
The green-swathed grasshopper, on treble pipe,
 Sings there, and dances, in mad-hearted pranks;
There bees go courting every flower that’s ripe,
On baulks and sunny banks;
And droning dragon-fly, on rude bassoon
 Attempts to give God thanks
In no discordant tune.

The speckled thrush, by self-delight embued,
There sings unto himself for joy’s amends,
And drinks the honey dew of solitude.
There Happiness attends
With inbred Joy until the heart o’erflow,
Of which the world’s rude friends,
 Nought heeding, nothing know.

This was the summer of a few weeks ago in the UK. Now, things are turning colder, and it appears that autumn has arrived in August. Still, we can think back on those sultry weeks, and imagine ourselves there with the help of Clare’s poems. They, after all, were all he had as he spent a good portion of his life and died in an asylum.

The bees perform yet another act of rescue.

*I know this is supposed to be a blog about Latin (among other things). French is a Romance language, so that kind of counts, doesn’t it?

Note: Clare’s poems can be found online, specifically at http://www.johnclare.info/

Please be aware that articles referenced and quoted from are linked within the text of the post

My Latin Notebook

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