Honey, honey…

The favourite confection of us all: we flavour our tea with it, spread it on bread, make cookies with it and use it for healing our sore throats. This is honey. You would not think that people in Hungary did apiary already a thousand year ago and partly due to that, a lot of folk beliefs and customs are related to apiculture. Our current article is about them, illustrated with ethnographic thematic records, apicultural and gingerbread tools from our database.

Short apicultural history

meheszet_111798.jpgApiculture is not animal farming as you could think first, but a kind of gathering-exploiting activity, during which people take the food collected and hived by animals. During history, people despoiled animals’ food depots many times, mainly mice’s, hamsters’ and ground squirrels’ holes, or took away bee swarms’ honey hidden in hollow trunks. The difference between hunting bees in forests and the forest beekeeping is that the hunter kills the bee family by taking away their honey in the first case, but in the second case, he goes back to the bee swarm living in a trunk or in a beehive every year. Domestic beekeeping separated from forest apiary when they put beehives in courtyards of houses or in fruiteries.

mezeskalacs_keszito_625003.jpgThis profession occurred in Hungary in the 11th century: beekeepers are mentioned among the inhabitants of the monastery of Pécsvárad in 1015. During the 14th-17th centuries, bees were sometimes used as war tricks, for example, they threw beehives with bees at the enemies during a siege. Honey was very expensive: one litre of honey cost a Christian prisoner on the Turkish market of Buda in the 16th century. It was not by chance, because honey was used as medicine in many places; and bee wax was needed for candle-making. Gingerbread baking masters also used a significant amount of honey. Gingerbread trade flourished as early as in the 14th century, and gingerbread was a beloved confection during centuries – just like today, but nowadays many people bake their own gingerbreads as festive cookies.

mehesztanfolyam_resztvevoi_604346.jpgThe first book on apiculture was written by Miklós Horhi in Nagyvárad in 1645. Its manuscript copy remained for the posterity. Apicultural profession was regulated and developed by central measures during Maria Theresa’s era. In this century, interested people could get apiarian education in Szarvas and Keszthely. Until the 18th century, there were honey-, mead- and wax taxes. Sometimes honey served as a fee to the parson of a village. The significance of honey diminished in the 19th century, because sugar appeared. Village names also attest to apiarian activities: Méhkerék of Békés County and Méznevelő that belongs to Slovakia now.

Superstitions and beekeeper wizards


Different beliefs and witchcrafts are related to apiary in different Eastern-European folk cultures.  The genesis of bees also has a religious shade and it has several versions: these gathering creatures were born from the tears of the Virgin Mary, from Christ’s blood, or his sweat or navel, and a version even says they were born from the worms of Christ’s wounds. The patron of beekeepers, gingerbread bakers and wax-chandlers is Saint Ambrose, whose episcopate was predicted by a bee swarm in his childhood. His legend seems a bit horrific nowadays: ‘He lay in his cradle on the courtyard of the governor’s palace as an infant, sleeping with mouth opened, when a swarm of bees settled on his face and walked in and out. His father, who walked that way with his wife or daughter, forbade the worrying nurse to shoo away the bees, for he wanted to see how the wonderful phenomenon was going to end. Soon after, the bees flew off and rose so high that they were not visible anymore. Then the awed father said: ‘If this infant stays alive, he will become a mighty man’.’ (László Babura: Life of Saint Ambrose)

mehes_221934.jpgA beekeeper had to be a real wizard to be able to keep in mind so many magical activities. They protected apiaries in several ways, for example with pinned horse skulls and – according to an eighteen-century technical book, for the sake of security – with antlers too. It is also important when they wake up and let out bees from the hive. Usually they let them out at the end of March on Joseph day (19 March) or on the day of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (25 March). According to old technical books, you should let bees out on a Wednesday or Thursday, because the Monday bees are lazy for example, and the Tuesday bees are quarrelsome. Beekeepers let out bees while praising them, and there were several practices to encourage them. Women were rarely allowed to approach the apiaries, and it was forbidden to go there during their periods. They covered hives with black veils at times of mourning and red textiles at times of wedding – to let them enjoy themselves too.

Not only with honey, but there was an example for healing by bees as well. An ethnographic collection of 1966 reporting on apiculture in Somogyszentpál wrote the following: ‘Carpenter István Matusek’s wife Rozália Berta talked about how she cured her educated 20-odd son by beestings, besides regular treatments. She started with 3 stings on his arms. She went up until 20 and the young man’s medical condition improved significantly. She had a similar fortunate case with a woman, who recovered after the cure. She had a third case as well, but could not continue her experiments due to the intervening war.’ Anyway, do not try copying that – not only because stings are painful, but in order to avoid life-threatening situations due to allergic reactions.

vigyazat_levegot_503763.jpgNowadays, you can hear more and more about the dangers that threaten bees and all of us with them. The climate change triggered by humans and chemicals used by agriculture are responsible for the devastation of bees. Without bees, food crops remain unpollinated. Recently, the European Union has banned three chemicals dangerous for bees, which gives some reason for being optimistic. You can help your stripy friends if you support ecological farming and buy your food from these farms.


Translated by Zita Aknai



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