The strange world of bee etiquette

Treat these complex insects with the respect they require and they will reward you with an abundance of honey. At least, that’s what the superstitions would have you believe…

Image courtesy of freeimages.com

Image courtesy of freeimages.com

When an otherwise amenable honey bee harpoons you before tumbling to the earth in her death throes, it’s commonly accepted that you must have done something to deserve it. Wasps are vindictive sods, horseflies are stealthy vampires, and hornets are psychopaths jacked up on insect steroids, but most of us have a vague notion that bees are honourable little souls who don’t sting unless offended somehow.

Delve into British and international folk culture, and you soon realise there are an awful lot of ways to offend a bee. My well-thumbed The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (Steve Roud, 2003) contains five pages on the subject, opening with the observation that “the key characteristic of bees [...] is that they are very sensitive and censorious creatures. ” They object to bad manners and domestic discord, they like to be introduced to visitors, and there are formal protocols in place for major events, such as weddings and funerals.

If it seems odd to behave so deferentially towards such miniscule creatures, consider that bees have commanded respect for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians believed bees were formed from the tears of Ra, while on Minoan Crete and in Phrygia they were associated with the great mother goddess. Greek philosophers admired their industry, and Virgil waxed lyrical about their moral character in The Georgics, noting that “beneath the shelter of majestic laws they live”. Germanic warriors likened them to tiny Valkyries who would bring them luck in battle, while Arabic writers in the 11th and 12th centuries valued their fastidious and loyal nature.

Bee respectful

Rulers throughout the ages have often felt kinship with the regal bee, and in some Norse, Celtic and Saxon cultures, honey or mead was considered valuable enough to be presented as royal tribute. The 5th-century Frankish king Childeric I was buried in a ceremonial cloak studded with 300 golden bees, and Napoleon adopted the same motif for his coronation robe. The 17th-century English apiarist William Butler sawbee society as a model for the perfect ‘Amazonian’ commonwealth, gushing that “they work for all, they watch for all, they fight for all [...] and all this under the government of one Monarch. ”

Humans have kept bees for millennia, and perhaps the abundance of bee-related etiquette is an attempt to understand the seemingly irrational intricacies of insect behaviour in our own terms. If your bees abandon their hive, it’s not really because you forgot to introduce a house guest. If they sting you, it’s not retaliation for a careless obscenity, and if they die off inexplicably, they haven’t done it out of spite because you didn’t bring them a bit of your communion wafer one Sunday. Bees swarm, sting or perish based on complicated environmental and internal factors that make little sense to all but the most knowledgeable entomologists. Much easier to think of a bee as a sort of kamikaze Jiminy Cricket, who will lay down her life without hesitation just to teach you a thing or two about good conduct.

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Putting hives in mourning

One of the most complicated portions of beehive etiquette concerns inheriting a colony of bees. Bees must be officially informed of the death of their previous owner, and must be formally put in mourning. Often the new owners are required to make a speech introducing themselves, and to present the bees with offerings of food. Flaunt these rules, and the bees are apt to leave the hives and follow their former master into the afterlife.

Writing in the 1890s, a country parson called J. C. Atkinson recounted one such episode from his boyhood in Essex, when the local rector died and the whole family trooped out to the beehives with “weird solemnity”. Each hive was bound with a strip of black ribbon, then tapped three times with the house key and informed that the master was dead. This sort of practice was once widespread, both in the UK and further afield. France and Switzerland had parallel traditions, and there was a rather fine variant from Guernsey, where it was an encouraging sign if the bees answered with a buzz when you knocked on the hive.

Ever-sensitive to change, bees also demanded certain formalities on wedding days. In Lancashire,
a simple marriage announcement to the bees would suffice, while in Brittany, newlyweds had to festoon the hives with red ribbon. In some areas of Croatia, meanwhile, a bride’s first job on entering her new home was to dab honey on the door lintels as a gesture of friendliness towards her new insect comrades.

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Sacred rituals

A 13th-century Welsh legal document called the Gwentian Code claims grandly that “The origin of bees is from Paradise and because of the sin of man they came thence, and God conferred His grace on them”.

As you might expect for creatures straight out of Eden, bees are especially hot on matters of religious observance, and they will soon abandon an owner who isn’t devout enough. Various British and European traditions over the years advised giving the bees a consecrated communion wafer every now and again, and more imaginative beekeepers would sometimes recount opening up the hive to find their bees reverently building ornate wax altars on which to place the sacred host.

Significant occasions in the church calendar often merited more elaborate offerings. In some parts of Germany, bees were provided with a special meal on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, and were treated to a sprinkling of holy water and a waft of incense on Epiphany and Christmas Eve. In northern England, the bees seem to have participated more exuberantly during the festive season. As early as 1794, the lawyer and historian William Hutchinson recorded that Cumbrian bees in Bootle were “heard to sing” on Christmas Eve, while William Henderson’s Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1879) mentions Northumbrian bees assembling promptly at midnight to “hum a Christmas hymn”.

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Bad behaviour

“It is a very general belief,” writes Hilda Ransome in The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (1937), “that you must not swear at bees. They will either die or sting those who use bad language”.

Bees expect the highest levels of conduct from their owners. They will not stay in a quarrelsome home, nor will they tolerate avarice or promiscuity, often going on strike in protest. In his early beekeeping volume, The Feminine Monarchie (1609), Charles Butler advises that “thou must not be unchaste and uncleanly; for inpuritie and sluttishness [...] they utterly abhor”. Bees are especially attuned to ‘inpuritie’, and there are stories of canny country girls walking their boyfriends past the beehives, knowing that bees will attack a cheater.

Bees value scrupulous fairness and generosity in their owners. They appreciate morsels from your table on special occasions, and there’s an old British custom that when you harvest the honey from your hive, you’re supposed to give some to your neighbours, since the bees have undoubtedly plundered nectar from their flowers.

Even many modern apiarists are convinced that bees pick up on the characteristics of their human companions. My mother boasts about how tidy her honey bees keep their hive, while an acquaintance attributes his ‘chilled out’ bees to his own even temper. To my delight, I was once informed at a village fair that bees from my native Yorkshire are hardier and more industrious than the slothful Italian bees imported by some rookie beekeepers.

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Acquiring bees

Another of the most common bee superstitions is that they don’t like to be bought or sold like domestic animals. In some parts of the UK you can trade bees for gold or barter them for chickens or whatever, but buying a colony for actual money is a big no-no. One Victorian source from the Dartmoor area suggests half a sack of wheat as a reasonable trade, urging that “bees must not be bought, [for] they would thrive as ill as if they were stolen. ” It goes without saying, of course, that no good can come of stealing bees, and they will usually express their outrage by dying en masse.

The best way to acquire bees is to inherit them, or even better, to have a swarm deliberately decide to take up residence with you. The sight of a swarm without a home has always been an exciting prospect for a beekeeper, and there are all kinds of elaborate charms for encouraging passing clouds of bees to stay. In Roman times, people attempted to attract itinerant swarms with bells and tiny cymbals, believing that they found the sound appealing. Somehow, this refined practice evolved into the rather rowdier British custom of ‘tanging’ bees, in which villagers chased a swarm down the street banging pots and pans. It’s not clear whether this was to announce the presence of the swarm, to attract it, or to lay claim to it, but whatever the case, it must have been fun.

Words: Joly Braime

This article originally featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now

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A bitter revival

While we may think of bitters as just being one ingredient in a cocktail, the scraps of available evidence suggest they were and continue to be an integral part of the creation

Illustrations by Bett Norris

Illustrations by Bett Norris

The craft cocktail movement has blossomed over the past decade; gone are pitchers of Long Island iced teas, replaced by the Negroni, crowned the ‘trendiest’ drink of 2018. A rise in speakeasy bars and artisan spirit making has created a boom in cocktail originality, led by a new genre of highly respected creative; the mixologist.

Not content with just serving the classics, bartenders are selecting their spirits with care, blending flavours with lashings of originality, and finding ways to add their own signature flair. And at the heart of this movement? A rediscovered appreciation for the humble bitter.

Surrounded by a hundred different types of craft gin, suddenly the diminutive bottle of Angostura that’s spent 10 years lurking at the back of the drinks cabinet doesn’t quite seem to cut it. Enter a new wave of bitters, determined to make their mark in the cocktails of the modern quaffers.

Representing the UK is Bitter Union, a husband and wife team that crafts bitters in small batches in Hampshire. Inspired by the resurgence in bitters Tom and Lucy saw in the US and Canada, they began making their own bitters at home, infusing botanicals in high proof alcohol for around four weeks. They grow many of the ingredients such as rhubarb and thyme themselves, starting with robust flavours and then refining the taste.

The importance of bitters in cocktails shouldn’t be underestimated: “It’s almost like salt and pepper for drinks,”Tom explains.“Bitters are special in that they are able to enhance existing flavours in the overall drink while also adding a delicate aroma that then takes it up to the next level in terms of sensory experience.”

Here’s our guide to four key bitter cocktail ingredients:

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Gentian (root)

Growing across Europe, gentian is one of the most commonly used plants in medicinal and cocktail bitters. Considered a ‘cooling’ bitter, its root is used to treat everything from indigestion to skin conditions. In the cocktail world it’s also indispensable, found as a core ingredient in both Campari and Angostura bitters.

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Wormwood (leaves)

An aromatic bitter, it’s known for helping with appetite loss and indigestion, as well as for its anti-parasitic properties. Before hops became widespread, it was used to add bitterness to beer, and is an essential ingredient in absinthe (the latin name for the plant is Artemisia absinthium). It is often blamed for the drink’s hallucinogenic reputation.

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Cinchona (bark)

Growing in South America, this tree held an important historic role that bridges the worlds of medicine and cocktails.The source of quinine, a natural anti- malarial, led to the creation of a medicinal ‘tonic water’, consumed widely by British officers in India. Many found the tonic water too bitter and added gin to make it more palatable and a classic drink was created.

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Bitter orange (peel)

The peel of the bitter or Seville orange is believed to improve digestion and reduce constipation.You will find it as an ingredient in Angostura bitters and Triple Sec, and the addition of a few drops of a bitters blend based around this will elevate a gin and tonic to another level.

Words: Steph Wetherell

This is an extract from a feature in issue eight of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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Hash it up

Welcome to the humble, yet delectable, world of the breakfast hash: an easy to cook and adaptable recipe guaranteed to fill your belly while using up those left over odds and sods in your fridge. Rising to prominence during the Second World War in its rationed corned beef based incarnation, the ‘hash’ is now a staple comfort food par excellence.

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The protein

Begin by crisping up any leftover meat or veggie protein in a hot skillet. If you’re lacking leftovers, some bacon or a little chorizo will do just fine. Fry until crisp and transfer to a warm plate with a slotted spoon, leaving the juices in the pan.



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The potato and the allium

Dig out that solitary leek or half an onion from the fridge and dice with some potato or sweet potato. Fry in the pan, throwing in some salt or smoked paprika.


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The veg

Balance it out with some leftover vegetables. We recommend button mushrooms, any weird or wonderful delights from your weekly veg box or some crunchy red peppers. Chop and add to the frying potato and onion.



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The egg

Personally, we think a true hash has to be finished with an egg. Add your meat/protein back to the pan with the veg, then crack a raw egg on top or make a nest for it to sit in. Leave to cook for five minutes until firm.

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The seasoning

Finish with a sprinkling of sea salt, black pepper, parsley and, if you’re feeling indulgent, fresh parmesan. Experiment with other combinations: salmon works well with dill and thyme; spring onion and kale works a treat with duck; tofu and sweet potato hash goes beautifully with turmeric.

Illustrations by Joe Latham

What’s your ultimate hash combo? Share it on Instagram tagging @ernestjournal, using the hashtag #ernesthash

Sourdough Library

Karl De Smedt has travelled to 50 countries on a quest for sourdough starters, to compile and study them at the Puratos Centre for Bread Flavour in Belgium. He invites us into his curious archive…

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First thing’s first, Karl. Why?

One hundred and fifty years ago, bakers yeast was starting to be produced commercially. Comparatively, the sourdough process was very time-consuming, so most bakers abandoned it and the knowledge was lost. I feel that having a library where sourdough can be studied is an important contribution to the world of baking and fermentation.

Tell us bit more about yourself and your background.

I graduated from bakery and patisserie school in 1988. I worked for six years in a confectionary in Brussels before joining Puratos in 1994 as a test baker. That’s where I worked with sourdough for the first time. The sourdough dated to 1989, brought over by a colleague from San Francisco, as part of research to produce sourdough solutions for the company’s customers. You could say this sample was the very first sourdough in our collection.

Since 2008, I’ve been responsible for the Centre for Bread Flavour, a specialist branch at the forefront of the company’s sourdough production efforts, which handles clients from all over the world. It’s here we opened the sourdough library in 2013.

How unique can a final sourdough product be?

Very. We like to compare sourdough to cheese, where the main ingredient is milk, but there are so many different types of cheese, due to the origin of the milk, fermentation temperatures, the ageing, the producer etc.With sourdough, there’s just as much variety – in our library we’ve identified over 900 microorganisms from 108 starters.

I understand that the original creator of each starter also needs to donate yearly supplies of flour to the library for maintenance. So, will this change the outcome of the mix later on?

Indeed, we do ask for a supply of flour from the owners for their sourdough contributions. However, we do that to minimise the impact of change, a protocol recommended to us by Professor Marco Gobbetti from the University of Bolzano and Bari in Italy. We are well aware that the starters might be subject to change. But with Gobbetti’s protocol, the sourdough cultures are kept in optimum conditions to preserve them for longer; we have the micro-organisms stored in a freezer at -80°C and the sourdoughs themselves are stored at 4°C.

When a sourdough enters our library, it’s like taking a picture. We capture that moment – we have the composition of the sourdough at that point in time. That allows us to go back to the bakery after 5, 10 or 20 years to compare the two starters with each other and the original sample. There is no other place in the world that is doing this for sourdough. That’s why this library is so important to us.

Does the library undertake research into the microbes in the starters?

Yes, of course. Through DNA sequencing, we can define each and every microbe that we find in a starter. So far, we have identified more than 900 different ones. We do this in close collaboration with the universities we work with; Professor Gobbetti and his team have already been able to produce a couple of scientific publications as a result of our work together.

Any surprising finds on your quest?

In a starter from Switzerland, made from rye flour, and one from Guadalajara in Mexico, we found the same strain of yeast: Torulaspora delbreucki. It’s a strain often found in premium wines. The only relation we could see between the two is that the bakeries were located at about 1,500 metres altitude. Also, In Canada I met a lady who had a sourdough that dated back to 1896 – her great-grandfather carried it to Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush. I shared her recipe online so our followers could make her waffles.

The sourdough library isn’t open to the public, but Karl and his team are happy to provide tours on request. Find out more at questforsourdough.com

Interview: Matt Iredale

Sea Spaghetti

Caro and Tim of the Cornish Seaweed Company dive into some of the cleanest waters in the world to hand-harvest their unusual bounty – dulse, nori, kelp and sea spaghetti

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Considering seaweed’s abundance and its supreme nutritional value, it’s a wonder we’re not seeing more of this flavoursome superfood on our plates. Try it for yourself – give this crab ‘tagliatelli’ a whirl. If you can’t get hold of crabmeat, prawns work just as well.

Ingredients

50g fresh sea spaghetti or 15g dried sea spaghetti
1 x carrot
1 x courgette
1 x leek
1/2 fresh chill, finely chopped, or 1/2 tsp chilli paste
2 x tomatoes
1 x lemon
1 x garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp olive oil
600g crabmeat
Ground black pepper

Method

  1. If using dried sea spaghetti, re-hydrate for 10 minutes in cold water, then drain. If using fresh, cut into ribbons about 10cm long.

  2. Thinly slice the carrot, courgette and leek into ribbons. Dice the tomatoes.

  3. Slice the lemon in half and keep one half for squeezing. Cut away the skin and pith then slice the flesh into segments.

  4. Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, then add the garlic, chilli, tomato and crab meat and cook together into a paste for 5 minutes.

  5. Add the vegetable ribbons and the seaweed with 250ml water and the juice from the reserved lemon half. Stir-fry for 5 minutes, then add pepper to taste. Garnish with the pieces of lemon.

Sustainability is at the heart of the Cornish Seaweed Company. Caro and Tim follow a strict code of conduct that ensures no wildlife is disturbed, and harvested areas are left to regenerate.