Exeter and Tiverton branches were once again asked to bring a stand to the annual National Trust Apple and Cider Fair at Killerton House in October. This year's topic was to be based around the myths, legends and folklore of apples and bees. An interesting subject, and many members immediately suggested the old custom of telling the bees about births, marriages and death, which seemed a good place to start. In fact there are so many traditions and beliefs about bees going back thousands of years, it was really hard to know where to begin.
Probably best to choose the top five for our list - they are also easy ones to talk around - and a selection of stories to put on the display boards. Almost all tales say that the bees will abscond, which in the past would mean the loss of a honey crop. The myths included covering hives with black cloth or ribbon if the master beekeeper dies and that you should never swear near the bee hive. Vikings believed mead was a gift from the Gods and gave them the power to be a poet and know the answers to all questions. (They can still be found at your local pub on a Friday night.)
We had a line about the Swarm of bees in May, etc.
The 16th Century started the phrase honey moon. The father-in-law would give the bride honey for a moon cycle for fertility; the groom would be given mead for stamina. Honey was a rare gift and diets were low in sweet things. It is now becoming fashionable again to give honey as a wedding gift.
The Egyptians believed bees were the tears of the God Ra. The Greeks believed that amber-coloured honey (melissa) was star fall which bees collected from flowers. The Romans had an interesting story of how the bee got its sting from the god Jupiter; this was chosen as a poster as children find bee stings interesting.
Bridgit, the celtic goddess, linked bees with apple blossom. It was said they brought their magical nectar to earth from her apple orchard in the Otherworld.
We also included the bible story of Samson and the Lion from the Tate and Lyle syrup tin as this is well known, and because the Indian Goddess, Bhramari Devi, resides in the heart chakra and emits the buzzing sound of bees, she was included too.
The last minute problem we had was that our bee exhibition had been invaded by slugs and was a slimy mess, so we took along a Warré hive. The frames cannot be seen in full but there is an observation window so you can see the comb and the bees working. Live bees are always worth the effort and lots of photos were taken of the display.
The site had almost doubled in size because of the number of stands. We were again in The Orchard, sited near the children's craft tent. Just down from our tent there was a large steam engine to crush the apples to make cider. Every hour a lady would start singing outside the tent to start the children wassailing the trees.
Saturday morning, thanks to Cliff Dampney, Alec Jones and Eva Loysen, went very well once the colouring sheets and activity sheets for children from the BBKA had dried out. (I had left them uncovered in a dew-filled tent.) The children were attracted to the Warré hive so it was placed on straw bales outside the tent to encourage them across. Janie Smallridge, with her family, ran the afternoon session and had a lovely time with masses of interest in the Exeter Beginners Course (and some for Tiverton's course). The weather meant she was able to open wide the tent for the public. Whilst there are always questions, Janie pointed out that many people did not realise the importance of honey bees to the apple crop - perhaps an idea for a poster next year.
Sunday was again a lovely sunny day. By the time I arrived to help Jenifer Tucker and Helen Pablo, it was lunchtime and the cars were parked in the field in front of Killerton House and had extended beyond it. The Fair was very busy so I'm sure the organisers must have been pleased with the attendance.
The bees had been kept in for two days now, with syrup, and were keen to get out. We had to keep the observation window of the hive closed as they just swarmed all over it and you couldn't see in. The trick was to open the window as people arrived so that they could see the comb and the bees working before a wave of bees came up from the bottom of the glass pane, some with mouthfuls of the bright green sponge I had used to block the entrance in their mouths. It was an impressive sight which we primed the children for - perhaps not quite the same as showing them a frame, but many children said "Do it again" many times.
We had a National hive with honeycomb inside; we opened and closed it quickly - a lesson we learnt last year after about 200 bees found the box open. We also had a honey spinner. You develop a second sense when boys about the age of 9-years old run towards it with a glint in their eye. Luckily they tend not to notice that the handle needs to be kept pushed in, but once they realise, watch out.
So another chance to let the public know more about bees. Thanks to Tiverton Beekeepers for the loan of their tent, and to Basil Strickland, Martin Myhill, Tony Lindsell and Malcolm Crook for making the going up and coming down of the tent look so easy.
Written by Cathy Mudge, Secretary
Published in "Beekeeping" (Vol. 83, No. 10)