Ask the wild bees what the Druids knew. – Fiona Macleod
The first name that this island bore,
before it was taken or settled;
And after it was taken and settled,
the Island of Honey.
On Sunday we collected the first honey of the year – the result of a miraculous alchemy in which bees turn the nectar of hundreds of flowers into sweet golden syrup.
In Scotland’s western isles, people once talked of ‘the secret knowledge of the bees,’ for these tiny creatures were thought to embody the ancient wisdom of the Druids.
So what did the Druids know? Bees have long been considered divine messengers from the gods. And until quite recently in the Highlands and Islands, people thought that, when in sleep, trance or death, the soul left the body in the form of a bee – a belief that has clear druidic origins. Druids were trained in the art of the ‘soul-flight,’ by which they could journey to the Otherworld for knowledge from the spirits. They would probably have endorsed the tenet beloved of the mystery schools of the Near East: Si sapis, sis apis! – If you would be wise, be a bee!
Perhaps they also carried forth the tradition of the Great Goddess, for bees, whose lives are organised entirely around a single queen, have been sacred to the Divine Feminine for thousands of years, in ancient civilizations from Babylon to Rome. Bees were revered for their ability to pollinate flowers and crops, increasing the abundance of the Earth. The cultivation of honey was regarded as a sacred charge carried out with great reverence and ritual for it was seen as a precious gift from the Mother herself.
In the classical world, priestesses of many aspects of the Divine Feminine, including Rhea, Cybele and Demeter, were called ‘melissae’, which means ‘honey-bees’, for they served the Goddess as Queen Bee. At the Ephesian temple of Artemis, the melissae were accompanied by castrated priests who represented male bees or drones. Aphrodite’s shrine on Mount Eryx was shaped like a honeycomb, considered by the Pythagoreans to be a symbol of her qualities of love and harmony, because of its perfect hexagonal shape.
Our honey bees were somnolent in the warmth of the mellow August sun, and did not protest when David removed the frames of honeycomb, heavy and bulging with honey, each cell meticulously capped and sealed with wax.
In Wales the bee was said to have been brought by the old sow-goddess, Hen Wen (the Old White One) who dropped three grains of wheat and three bees in the county of Gwent, which has since produced the best wheat and the best honey in the land.
In the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the young hero must perform many impossible tasks before he can win the hand of the giant’s daughter, Olwen White-Track. One of these is to gather ‘honey that is nine times sweeter than the honey of the virgin swarm, without scum or bees, to make bragget for the feast.’ Bragget is a drink made from honey and spiced ale.
My job was to scrape the wax caps off the honeycomb to reveal the golden treasure within – a sticky business! Then David spun each frame in a cylindrical tank to extract the honey, and when it was full, we filtered it through a couple of sieves into a settling tank. The rich golden stream flowed out like a river.
In early Ireland, the Bards sang of Land-under-Wave, the Otherworld country of the gods, where
‘Rivers pour forth a stream of honey
In the land of Manannán son of Lír.’
This was the land where Celtic warriors hoped to live when they had passed from this world, where they could feast, carouse, and drink unlimited quantities of mead. Mead, made from fermented honey, was the drink of heroes and kings: the royal hall of Tara was called the ‘mead-circling house.’ But it was not only for the rich: An Irish hermit who lived in the woods celebrated his simple life among the swarms of bees, whom he called, ‘the little musicians of the world.’ Their symphonies entertained him while he drank his fill of honey-wine flavoured with hazel-nuts.
No mead for us, but jars of the sweet stuff for our breakfast toast – and hopefully, enough wax left over to make candles. This morning the waxy cappings were returned to the bees so that they could clean the honey off – food for them and clean wax for me. The rain came later this afternoon – a good time to bottle the filtered honey in glass jars.
Bees were considered so important to early Irish society that there were special bee laws designed to protect them, called the ‘bech bretha.’ A 7th century holy woman called Gobnait, who founded a women’s community in southwest Ireland, had a close relationship with bees and used their honey for healing illnesses and treating wounds. She was said to be one of three sisters who had power over fire, and is clearly a Christianised version of the triple fire-goddess, Brighid, with whom she shares the same feast-day in early February.
When a band of thieves attempted to steal the community cattle, Gobnait let loose a swarm of bees on the rustlers and sent them fleeing in terror. At her shrine in Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, a statue depicts her standing on top of a hive, surrounded by bees.
Nowadays the bee population of North America and Europe is in serious decline, which is a disaster in the making for all our major crops which are dependent upon bees to pollinate them. Scientists are unable to pinpoint the reason, but suspects include the increase of commercial agriculture with its use of pesticides and destruction of wild plants and flowers for the bees’ forage. Also implicated are the mass transportation of colonies for commercial purposes, which creates stress for the bees and spreads disease. In fact, bees are an indicator species for the health of Mother Earth, and they are definitely giving us a dire warning about the way we are treating her.
To honor the Earth by giving back to the bees, you could join the many individuals and families who are taking up beekeeping in response to the current crisis. Or find some other ways to help, for instance:
- Leave an area of your garden wild so that plants can flourish for the benefit of the bees. In Scotland, this was called the ‘gudeman’s croft,’ the plot of land reserved for creatures of the wild, which included the faeries, or “good folk.”
- Create a wildflower meadow, or exchange formal flower beds and lawns for a profusion of flower varieties, especially early and late bloomers.
- Support small beekeepers by buying local honey and bee products such as beeswax candles and salves.
- Buy organic vegetables and fruit that have been raised without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and support organic farming in your area.