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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European idioms

The English language has its fair share of punchy idioms, but we think these continental phrases give our beaten-about-bushes and silver-lined clouds a run for their money.

Everything has an end, only the sausage has two.  ©  photos4design.com

Everything has an end, only the sausage has two. © photos4design.com

estar en el ajo

Spanish: ‘to be in the garlic

The explanation: Alluding to the most sought after of culinary ingredients, this phrase means ‘to be clued up’, often to information of a nefarious nature.

Our translation: In the know (shifty eyes and nose-tap required).

farsene un baffo

Italian: ‘to make a moustache

The explanation: It would appear that the humble lip warmer is of little interest in Italy, as this phrase means to consider something as insignificant or, to simply, not care.

Our translation: Whatever, everyone has a moustache these days.

was der bauer nicht kennt, frisst er nicht

German: ‘what the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat

The explanation: We all have one friend who wouldn’t dare expand their culinary palette beyond scrambled eggs on toast. This phrase is for them.

Our translation: Stop counting your chickens and try this avocado.

il ne faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties

French: ‘you shouldn’t push your gran in the stinging nettles

The explanation: A black-humoured way of saying don’t push your luck.

Our translation: Watch it, your gran is tougher than a navy seal.

tirer des plans sur la comète

French: ’To draw plans on the comet

The explanation: A wonderful way of expressing the ephemeral joy and uselessness of making plans around future successes. You might say it’s as silly as building castles in the air.

Our translation: ‘Life happens when you make plans, so don’t get carried away now.’

alles hat ein ende nur die wurst hat zwei

German: ’Everything has an end, only the sausage has two

The explanation: A rather humorous way of saying that everything has to come to an end, and we have much to learn from the humble sausage.

Our translation: ‘Everything must end, so have a sausage.’


Words: Matt Iredale

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

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The footpaths of Dungeness

Dungeness is a shingle promontory on the south coast of Kent. Technically a desert and the largest expanse of shingle in Europe, it’s not a traditionally beautiful location. Its vast flatness gives the illusion that nothing much grows there, two nuclear power stations dominate the skyline, and debris from the fishing industry litters the beaches, all of which act in stark contrast to the area’s nature reserve status. Here are just a handful of the compelling sites This Way explore on their Dungeness map.

Image courtesy of This Way

Image courtesy of This Way

1 Dungeness A and B

Two nuclear power stations and their trail of pylons dominate the skyline. Dungeness A has now been decommissioned, after being switched on in 1965, and is slowly being demolished. Its huge neighbour, Dungeness B, remains operational, powering 1.5 million of London’s 3.5 million households. As a visitor, the sheer proximity of the power stations can add an unsettling undertone, a reality that becomes especially stark when reading the ‘emergency procedures’ boards dotted around the estate. However, if you are lucky enough to spend a night in Dungeness, there is a gentle beauty in the mass of twinkling lights.

2 The Boil

Out to sea, just in front of the power stations, The Boil is a bubbling mass of water. It’s easy to spot as it’s usually surrounded by a cloud of seabirds. Nuclear power stations use 100 million litres of water per hour; when the water has run through the cooling system it’s pumped back into the ocean, now a warm 12ºC. Sadly small fish get caught in the filters and are pumped back into the ocean through the same pipes, creating a rich feeding ground for seabirds.

3 Old Lighthouse

The drift of shingle has reshaped the land enough times that five lighthouses have been and gone since the 1600s. Historically, lighthouses have been vital on this headland, which has been a hotspot for shipwrecks. Today, two lighthouses remain. A walk up the 169 steps to the top of the no-longer operational Victorian ‘Old Lighthouse’ gives impressive views across the shingle ridges.

The Dungeness Map, by This Way, is a double-sided map detailing 11 points of interest in this curious place, £5. This Way also offers six- and 12-month map subscriptions where every month a postcard featuring a walk and stories from across the UK is delivered to your door; this-way.co

Tarpology: how to pitch a tarp

Lightweight, packable and easy to pitch (once you know how), bikepacker Laurence McJannet is your guide to the humble tarp

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While a tarp lacks the insulating and wind blocking properties of a tent, it’s the type of shelter bikepacker Laurence McJannet always takes on his journeys. “A one-man tarp can pack down to the size of your fist and weighs almost nothing so it’s perfect for hiking and bikepacking, particularly when teamed with a bivvy bag,” he says. Read on for Laurence’s tips for pitching a tarp…


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Travelling solo with a bike

All you need is a 2x3m tarp, your bike, pegs and short lines. First, remove your bike’s front wheel and rotate the pedals parallel to the ground. Push the fork dropouts into the earth, using the bars to support one end of your tarp. Peg out the other end over your spare wheel, angling it away from the tarp for support. Finally, peg out the four corners with lines long enough to roll in on one side (the bottom of the tarp should be about 50cm off the ground).


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Sheltering in a group

A 5m rectangular tarp is a perfect shelter with plenty of headroom, especially if you’re kayaking, as the oars make perfect supports (tree branches are fine too). Lay the tarp on flat ground, peg out one of the longer sides and raise the opposite side by points roughly a third of the way in. Lash to branches at head height or to oars, with the paddles angled inwards for support. Tuck in the two corners nearest these supports and peg down. Extra guy ropes are recommended in high winds.

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Simple gable roof

Most dedicated tarps have a series of central loops or eyelets. For a simple gable roof, run a line through the loops along the tarp’s length and attach the ends to sturdy supports at chest height.This forms a central line (about 75cm off the ground) to peg out your corners. This is great for creating a shelter above a hammock using the same supports (but remember to run the tarp line at head height).

Laurence McJannet is the author of Bikepacking: Mountain Bike Camping Adventures on the Wild Trails of Britain (2016), published by Wild Things Publishing.


Illustrations by Aidan Meighan