About 200 years ago an agricultural expert working in Middlesex was surprised to discover how few people kept bees.
“There are no bees of any consequence kept in the county. We rarely see a hive at a farm house, and perhaps not ten cottages in the county have any. It is lamentable that these most valuable insects should be so much neglected. Cottagers might pay their rent from the produce of their bees, which require little attendance and less provision. Their whole increase, wax and honey, is very nearly net profit; and they are also supposed to be very serviceable in promoting the increase of beans, peas etc.”
Although at the time scientists were beginning to appreciate the important role played by bees in the pollination of plants this report clearly shows that it was not common knowledge. Another account collected by local historian G.E Bate suggests that very little was known about scientific beekeeping either. In his book “And So Make a City Here”, he relates an elderly woman’s description of the way in which bees were kept in the mid 1800’s and in particular a process called “Killing the Bees”.
Bee-killing is the killing of the bees in a colony so that the combs containing honey and brood (larval and pupal stages) can be taken. Left without honey stores or brood, any surviving bees are doomed. Honey hunters usually regret having to kill the colony, but they know of no other way to obtain honey or wax. The value of the beeswax is often unknown where bee-killing is practiced; it is usually thrown away or used for fuel.
The American Peace Corps manual on small scale beekeeping
The lady told Mr. Bate that she remembered the night of the “bee killing” because she was allowed to stay up and given a piece of honeycomb. The beehives, or ‘skeps’ as they were called, were made of straw and covered with a straw hackle. Inside were two strips of wood to give the bees something to hang their honeycombs on. The skeps were placed on a wooden board. Then the bees sealed them down with wax.
On the night of the killing a small hole was dug front of each skep. Sulphur was then melted into it and long feathers dipped in. Once dry the feathers were stuck upright into the hole and set alight.
“As they smouldered they (the feathers) gave off dense sulphur fumes. The hive was then quickly picked up and placed over the hole. In about ten minutes all the bees had fallen dead… The hives were then carried into the house, the combs removed and broken up and placed over a sieve for the honey to drain away from them … fourteen pounds of honey from a hive was considered a very good crop.”
Some of the skeps were left untouched so that the bees might swarm the following year. This was the only way that the cottagers had to replenish their stock.
The lady also told Mr Bate of a very firmly rooted superstition in the district. If a death occurred in the family the bees had to be told or they would all die during the coming year. When her father died one of the servants went out and stood in front of each of the hives in turn and solemnly announced to the bees that the master had died but that they must continue their work. She also mentioned how associations were being formed at the time to educate beekeepers in more modern methods of bee-keeping, raising the bees rather than killing them.
One such association is the Twickenham and Thames Valley Beekeeping Association which was founded in 1919 “To educate the general public in bee-keeping.” Ninety years on the association still continues that work.
200 years ago the agricultural expert commented “We rarely see a hive at a farm house, and perhaps not ten cottages in the county have any.” Now there are at least 50 bee-keepers in the Twickenham area alone producing honey that is prized for its excellent quality.
Even up to our own times this killing of the bees to obtain the honey was practiced. The poet more than once shows his objection to this useless method by the terms he used, as when Talbot describes the method of the " witch " Joan of Arc in repulsing the British troops —
“As bees with smoke, and doves with noisome stench.
Are from their hives and houses driven away.”
Proceedings of the South London Entomological & Natural History Society 1915-16
When, like the bee, culling from every flower
The virtuous sweets.
Our thighs packed with wax, our mouths with honey,
We bring it to the hive ; and, like the bees.
Are murder’d for our pains."
Shakespeare ‘HENRY IV’
— from Martyn Day