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Bees and the clergy

I'm not a bee-keeper, but my friend is. This is a piece that he wrote for our parish mag that I thought might interest downsizers. His/their honey is the best I've tasted!

The Cloth and the Comb
“One good thing about bees is they always appear to be the same. Some years pass: we age, we see our friends disappear, revolutionary changes take their effect, illusions fall one after the other, and yet, amongst the flowers, the bees that we have known from childhood modulate the same musical phrases, with the same freshness of voice. Time seems not to have taken its toll on them, and, as they hide themselves to die, as we never help them in their agony, we can imagine that we always have before our eyes those that enchanted our early childhood, those too who, during our long existence, have provided for us the happiest hours and the rarest of friends.”
(Abbé Emile Warré, trans. P and D Heaf, 2007)

Bees are in crisis and in danger across the world – not only honey bees but wild bees and other pollinators too. The insect population is dwindling rapidly, with some species already extinct and many more reaching endangered levels. New farming methods cause the loss of natural habitats; chemicals are used indiscriminately to maximise crops or zap pests; disease is spread by worldwide air transport; new viruses emerge which resist known treatments; global warming affects the flowering seasons of bee friendly plants; colonies are stressed by transportation across continents to pollinate crops; the list goes on and on.

Not many of us realise, however, that many of the major developments and discoveries in beekeeping over the past 500 years or so have been made almost exclusively by members of the clergy. Perhaps in past times they have had a little more time than their flock to observe, analyse, contemplate, theorise and experiment….

It was realised in Greece in early times and in Europe by the 17th century that honey bees could be parted from their honey more readily by the use of movable comb frames in a wooden hive, than by destroying the whole colony in a straw skep with fumes of burning sulphur. The Rev. William Mew, vicar of Eastington, near Stroud, developed one of the first really modern hives in 1649: it had multi-storey boxes to hold the honey, movable frames holding the comb, and glass panels to observe the bees at work. Samuel Pepys writes of being intrigued by such a hive in 1665.

But a different approach stems from one of the most interesting of the “clergy bee masters” of Victorian and modern times, Abbé Emile Warré (1867-1951). Warré was the curé of parishes in the Somme area of France and later at St Symphorien near Paris. He studied meticulously over many years the lifestyle and building techniques of honey bees left to thrive in their natural state, for example by nesting in hollow trees. He systematically assembled and experimented with all the various available movable frame hives (a large sample of each, he was running about 350 in all). He was aware of the success of large scale beekeepers in the US and Europe with movable frame hives, but he saw too all across France thousands of such hives abandoned by smallholders and “one family farmers” who had neither the time nor the money to operate them.

He saw the need for a hive that was simple and inexpensive to build, followed the natural building habits of bees, and also needed minimal time spent to manage it. The solution he came up with was “the People’s Hive”, and he set out the results of his observations, his methods and very specific instructions for its construction in his major work “Beekeeping for All”. His hive, now known as the Warré hive, emulates the life of that colony in the tree: bees build their own comb downwards in narrow boxes in a surprisingly regular pattern from simple starter strips of wax on fixed bars.

The hive is never opened, portions at the top (containing honey) being removed and others (for the new brood) added at the foot each season. This lack of interference firstly allows the bees, without effort, to keep their hive permanently at its optimum temperature and secondly frees them from regular internal examinations of the hive, so reducing their stress and keeping them much freer from disease. Most importantly for the French peasant farmer or the time poor 2012 British beekeeper alike, Warré’s hive requires maybe at most two hours of work in a year.

Warré’s learning, his great love of bees, and the simple brilliance of his hive as an ecologically sound way to keep them, lives on – you can find at least two or three practitioners in Hackney today.

Nice article.
Not exactly historically accurate, I think he might have confused top bars & frames.
The octagonal hive the Reverend Mew used was similar to Warres with top bars.
Framed hives didn't emerge until the mid 19th century.
Attributed to Langstroth (another Reverend) although he combined & patented others ideas from a few years earlier.

The religious orders & bees have kept company since at least the middle ages.
Ecclesiastical candles where needed in quantity because of the spate of church & cathedral building the Normans started. Compared to tallow, beeswax burns brighter, zero smell & little smoke.
Of course this left the Friars & Monks with a surplus of honey so no surprise that a lot of our brewing history comes from the same source.
The image of the jovial & plump friar is probably accurate.

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