Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Bees in Staffordshire

One of the pleasures of rooting around the William Salt Library is coming across an arcane article in the many volumes of deliberations of the Staffordshire Field Club. I found a piece on the history of bee keeping in Staffordshire, the article dated from the 1930s.

It seems that the first reference to bee keeping in the county occurs in the reign of King Stephen in the 1130s when travelling expenses for the king’s entourage through Staffordshire includes sums of money for local honey for the production of mead. It also seems to have been important in Leek, with 5s. raised by the sale of honey from the manor in 1185 .  Honey bees were also maintained by religious communities in monasteries such as Croxden mainly for the wax they produced. From this beeswax candles were produced; these were far superior to the candles made from tallow used by the general population. By the time of the Tudors two early writers on agricultural practice in Staffordshire commentated on bee keeping. Fitzherbert in 1534 is quoted “he that hath sheep and swine and hyve slepe he, wake he, thrive he”. During Elizabeth’s reign William Harrison described local hives as being made of “rye straw and wattled around with bramble quarters, but some are made of wicket”. One of the first historians of Staffordshire Doctor Robert Plot writing in the 1680s believed that Staffordshire hives differed from those elsewhere as they were made from osier twigs woven into basket like shapes and covered with dried mud and cow dung. In the 17th century one of the principle apiarist of the area John Rudyard of Dieulacres near Leek had many hives in the area covered by a straw hackle to keep off the rain.

One of the giants of 19th century bee keeping was Edward Bevan who was born in London in 1770 became medically qualified and served as a doctor in Stoke in the early 19th century. He later moved to Congleton, but his “magnum opus” on apiary and their upkeep was published in 1827, “The honey bee; its natural history, physiology, and management”. Later editions were dedicated to a great admirer and fellow bee keeper Queen Victoria. Like Izaak Walton on fishing or Augustus Whiffle on pigs it is a book that has never been out of print. In his obituary Bevan was described as resembling Mr Pickwick. “He will always remain a shining example of excellent work done by the shy, retiring man”. I am surprised that the work of this sterling character is not more widely recognised in the Potteries. His fame has lasted 150 years after his death. I wonder if any of the celebrity names that are banded about now such as Robbie Williams will be known by the cognoscenti 150 years after they leave the stage?

Today the tradition of bee keeping is kept alive with a local bee keeping association meeting monthly in Leek. There are serious issues around the collapse of bee numbers which is a matter of concern as the insect role as a pollinator is vital for the growth of food on which humans as well as other species need to survive.