Beekeeping in Anglo-Saxon/Norman England

By Baroness Morgan of Anglesey



In the next few pages I hope to answer some of the questions about beekeeping in Anglo-Saxon/Norman England and in our world today.  We will look at who kept bees, what they kept bees in, how they cared for them, and how they harvested honey and wax.   First we’ll take a look at the pre-history of our friends Apis Mellifera, the only honey bee native to Europe.


Social honey bees precede humans on earth by ten to twenty million years.  Primeval humans gathered and ate the honey and honeycomb of wild bees as far back as 7000 BC as evidenced by cave paintings in northern Spain.  In ancient Egypt, the hieroglyph of a bee was used extensively as a symbol of the nation and the Pharaoh.  Actual examples of hives made of pottery exist from Ancient Greece and there are writings from Ancient Rome on bees and beekeeping.


As far as the presence of honeybees in Britain, it is believed they may have been present on the island by 5500 BCE.  This assumption is based on the presence of hazel in archeological finds, which has been regarded as an indicator of honeybee survival in Scandinavia.  In addition, analysis of pottery shards found in Neolithic levels at Runnymede Bridge showed the presence of beeswax, glucose and honey.  These were dated to 3000-2650 BC.


During the period of our interest, several years before and after 1066, there is quite a bit of documentation regarding bees and beekeeping.  In reference to the introduction of beekeeping in England, Dr. Eva Crane states in her book “The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting” that “hive beekeeping was almost certainly introduced in the east of England from continental Europe and transmitted through Britain from East to West.”  There is no definitive date for when the introduction occurred but it is believed to be prior to Roman occupation as there is no archeological or written evidence of Roman influence on beekeeping practices or equipment.


In Anglo-Saxon England there were extensive laws written down between the reigns of Kings Ina, Alfred, and Edward the Confessor between the years 700 and 1050. Some of those laws dealt with the punishment meted out to those who stole from beekeepers but there is no information about beekeeping itself except the mention of honey measurements in sextars and tubs which leads us to conclude they had liquid honey.  Rectitudines Sungularum Personarum”, dating from 1000 AD, contains descriptions of duties and benefits of various occupations or stations, including that of “beo ceorl” (beekeeper) who  belonged to the lowest rank of free men, listed with the swineherd, and owed his Lord all the work other vassals did.  As a vassal, his bees and the land they were on belonged to the Lord, he held them by virtue of his job description alone, and reverted to his Lord upon his death.  If his land was good, he was required to have a horse which would allow him to tend the hives located on all his Lord’s lands. 


According to Fraser in his “History of Beekeeping in England”, “the Anglo Saxons had invaded a land in which beekeeping in wicker hives had been practiced from time immemorial, having continued unchanged through the Roman occupation.  Up to the present no evidence has been produced that the Anglo-Saxons themselves changed it in any way, except for the introduction of the straw skep in East Anglia.”  As we will see, the Norman’s knew a good thing when they saw it as they would continue the successful beekeeping practices they found in England.


Certainly one of the most comprehensive sources for the time of the Norman Conquest of England is the Domesday Book.  First, let’s define some of the terminology used in the five volumes that make up the Domesday Book.    


The term most commonly used for the actual person who kept the bees and harvested the honey and wax was custos apium.  In addition, the term melittarii is used to describe people involved in beekeeping.  The word translates to “honeyers” but it is unclear as to exactly what these people did although it has been argued that they may have harvested wild bee honey from the forests as opposed to keeping bees in hives.  This type of beekeeping, called forest beekeeping, was practiced extensively during this period in the densely wooded areas on the European Continent.  But there is little evidence that it was widely practice in England.


Terms in the Domesday for the beekeeping equipment in Herefordshire include vascula, which would have been a small hive, perhaps made of wicker.  Vasa apum is also used to describe the hives in Huntingdonshire and other eastern counties.   These were probably the larger straw skeps that we are familiar with.  The term rusca, wicker hives possibly covered with tree bark, is used to describe the hives in Suffolk. The earliest archeological evidence of the types of hives noted in the Domesday include the remains of a coiled straw skep from Coppergate dated to the twelfth century and what is believed to be a part of a wicker hive found in Lower Saxony dated to 0-200 AD. (Crane, 1983)


We can look to other sources of information on beekeeping from this time period.  There were several books on husbandry written around this time that contain information on beekeeping.  One such book, written in the 1200’s, “Ceo est hosebonderie, by an unknown author, sheds some light on the beekeeping practices of the time (Fraser, 1958).


“Each of hive of bees ought to give every year [swarms] for two hives on the average, for some give none, and others give three or four a year  And in some places they are given nothing at all to eat in the winter, and in some they are fed; and where they are fed it is possible to maintain eight hives right through the winter on a gallon of honey; and if you collect the honey every other year, you would have two gallons of honey from each hive.”


This appears to be instruction on the care of hives through the winter as well as what one might expect by way of honey production. 


Another important work of the time was “De Naturis Rerum”, an encyclopedia of learning of the time by Alexander Neckham (1157-1217).  Unfortunately Neckham turned to the tomes of antiquity for his beekeeping information so his writing sheds no light on practices of his time.  He does write that the bees supply him with moral lessons:  they begin life as legless grubs and finally rise to the possession of wings, they are chaste, obedient to their King, and have all things in common – they are in fact typical monks.


This leads us to the actual practice of beekeeping in 1066 England.  We know from the Domesday entries that most custos apium, the beekeeper, kept their bees in skeps, either wicker or coiled straw.  They would have most likely practiced a form of beekeeping called swarm beekeeping which developed as a result of the cooler climate.  The main honey flows occur in the mid to late summer in the cool temperate zone.  Swarm beekeeping depended on the production and hiving of bee swarms in early summer, which stored additional honey from the late flows.  The beekeeper of this time would have kept his bees in small hives.  These small hives would encourage the colony of bees living inside to split off into two colonies when their hive becomes over crowded thus ensuring the survival of the colony.  As a bee hive swarms, the old queen bee takes half the colony out of the over crowded hive in search of a new home.  The beekeeper would have to be on his toes to follow the swarm and get them into one of his skeps to return it to the bee yard thus increasing his number of hives and ultimately the amount of honey he can produce.  At the end of the honey flow he would take the honey from the lightest hives, as they were likely to starve during the winter and the heaviest hives, as they had produced the most honey.  The beekeeper would winter over the hives of medium weight taking no honey from them as they would need this honey to survive the winter.  These hives were needed to start the whole process over again in the spring.  Those hives that were chosen to be harvested were most likely doomed to a smoky death.  The beekeeper would probably have used sulphur fumes to kill the bees before taking the honey and wax.  From the record available it would appear that most of the honey produced was in liquid form although there are some records of comb honey being sold.   The honey was used as a sweetener in cooking, and to make mead, and other drinks.  In addition, the records of sales of wax are plentiful.  The common uses were candles, seals and cere cloth, a cloth that was soaked in wax used in burials. 


I have not found any evidence of protective equipment being used by the beekeeper during this time period.  The earliest evidence of purpose-made protection against stings on the head and face appeared in Western Europe about 1400 in an illuminated manuscript.  Modern beekeepers often opt for working with bare hands as a sting on the hand is worth the added dexterity in handling the hive, so I assume the medieval beekeeper may have chosen the same trade off.  But working without face protection must have been a painful endeavor if indeed he performed his duties without said protection.


Let us now turn our attention to today and some details about modern beekeeping.  Hives today don’t look much like the wicker skeps of 1066 but the bees still produce the same wonderful honey and golden wax.  First we will let’s take a look at the residents of the hive, the drone, the worker and the queen.

The drone is the male bee.  He does nothing but lay around, eat honey and wait for a warm sunny day to go fly around and hunt a young queen to mate with.  If they do mate, they die immediately after.  If any drones are still alive in the hive when the cooler fall weather sets in, they will be ejected from the hive by whatever means necessary by the worker bees as they will be nothing but a drain on the honey resources that are needed for surviving the winter months.  Worker bees are sterile female bees.  They can number up to 60,000 in a single hive.  As their name suggests, they do all the work of the hive – tending larvae, feeding the queen, cleaning, grooming each other, constructing beeswax, guarding the hive, foraging for nectar and pollen, making honey and keeping the hive cool or warm as needed.  They live for a month or two in the active spring or summer, but if reared in late summer or fall they can live through the winter.  The Queen is the heart of the colony.  Her sole purpose is to ensure the life of the hive by laying eggs.  In May or June she will lay 1000 to 2000 eggs daily, working continuously day and night, seven days a week (now you know why the workers have to feed her).


A Year in the Life of a Bee Hive


March – the first warm days see bees coming out of the hives to search for early flowers.  This promotes the queen to start laying eggs that hatch as new workers!

April/May – the number of workers is really growing and more flowers are coming to bloom.  Brood production continues at a furious pace.

June – the weather is close to perfect, every flower and plant seems to be blooming, and the days are longer.  Workers can forage for 14 to 16 hours a day.  It is during this time that the hive really grows and makes honey.  This is also mating time.  Drones reared in great numbers and new queens can be found in stronger colonies.  When a new queen emerges from her wax cell the colony is ready to divide.  About half the bees leave the hive, usually with the old queen.  They will temporarliy settle somewhere near and send out scout bees to find a new home.  Meanwhile back at the hive, the young queen remains.  The next day she will take her mating flight to a drone congregation area and mate with 10 to 15 males.  If successful, she will never attempt to mate again.

July/August – there are not many blooming honey plants, bees often just break even on honey productions.  Often there is a second honey flow in early fall, but not as much is produced as in the summer.

September/October – winter preparations begins and brood rearing slows down.  When cold weather hits they cluster tightly together for warmth.

November through February – the bees are eating stored honey and “shivering” and clustering around the queen to generate heat.  If there are enough bees to make a large warm cluster and have sufficient honey they should survive the winter.


Honey is the main reason man has had such a long relationship with bees. Bees make honey by collecting nectar from flowers.  “Field bees” can forage for nectar for up to one square mile from their hive and return to the hive with nectar stored in one of their stomachs. (yes, they actually have two stomachs)  The nectar is mixed with enzymes in the stomach and the bee spits it into wax comb cells.  “House bees” will fan this pre-honey (what I refer to affectionately as bee puke) until enough of the moisture has evaporated. I is then officially but unceremoniously dubbed officially honey by being capped over with more wax for future use.


Another product made by bees that man has found very useful over the years is wax.  Beeswax is formed from glands located on the bee’s abdomen.  They use the wax to build “honey comb” and brood comb.  They will build the comb out to fill whatever space is available leaving only 3/8” (9mm) of “bee space” between the sheets of comb.


The modern bee hive is made up of several different parts.  A bottom board with a slight inclined ramp into the entrance is the base, on that would be placed “supers” or boxes which hold frames.  These come in a variety of sizes to accommodate brood rearing and honey collection.  Each frame hanging in the super has a foundation of bees wax inserted in it to assist the bees in creating their comb in uniform fashion so the beekeeper can more easily remove the frame for inspection or honey extraction.  Covering the supers are inner and outer covers.  Some beekeepers choose to use a queen excluder, which is a wire grid, placed between the brood supers and honey supers.  This grid is too small for the queen to pass through but big enough for the workers to get through and keeps the queen from laying eggs in the honey supers. 


But a hive is nothing but a fancy wooden box without bees.  There are several ways a modern beekeeper can get bees.  You can purchase an established hive from a beekeeper, which can run from $75 to $100 for a strong hive.  You can purchase a divide from an existing hive, called a nuc, and install a queen purchased from a mail order source.  This is more economical but it will take the hive at least a year to get up enough strength to produce honey surplus.  Many beekeepers elect to purchase a package of bees from a mail order source.  You can buy 2 or 3 pounds of bees that come in a wood and screen box, a fertilized queen, and a can of simple syrup for them to eat on the trip to your hive.  You can be sure your local post master will call you first thing on the morning you bees arrive as a box full of bees has a tendency to make the average person a little nervous. There is also the possibility that you can catch and install a swarm of bees that have nested someplace where they are not wanted, although this is rare today.


Some of the basic equipment used by the modern beekeeper includes a bee veil, which no hive should be opened without, smoker, gloves, and a hive tool.  Many experienced beekeepers opt not to use gloves, trading the occasional sting on the hand for easier manipulation of hive parts.  The smoker is used to blow smoke in the hive.  When bees encounter smoke they will fill themselves up on honey in case they have to evacuate the hive.  It is harder for them to sting with such full bellies.  Bees produce a substance called propolis to glue the parts of the hive together.  Beekeepers use a hive tool, a miniature crow bar, to pry open inner and outer covers and to get frames out of supers.


If you are interested in beekeeping in your area a good way to start is with you state agricultural department through your state’s web page.  Here in Kentucky we have a great state apiarist who is available to help new beekeepers and conduct hive inspections.  You can also contact your local Cooperative Extension office and ask if there is a local beekeeper’s association in your town. 

Beekeeping is a wonderful hobby; the few stings you get are worth the satisfaction of watching a strong hive busy with activity on a warm summer day.  It gives you the opportunity to slow down a bit, practice some patience and show some care for a little creature that has given us so much over the millennium.



A poem by Virgil as quoted in the “Foure Bookes of Husbandry” by Heresbach:


            Togeather all they quietly doo lye,

            Togeather all they toyll with equall might:

            And in the morning foorth together flye,

            And home as fast they come agayne at night.

            Where as they lay their weery lims to rest,

            And trimme their wynges, and set their legges in frame:

            Tyll every one him self hath thoroughly drest,

            Then synging at their doores a whyle they game.

            Tyll one geves warnying for to goe to bedde,

            Then downe they lay to rest theyr sleepie head.


  Bibliography for “Beekeeping in Anglo-Saxon/Norman England”


Crane, Eva (1983) The Archeology of Beekeeping: Gerald Duckworth and Co., Ltd.,

 London.  ISBN 0-70156-1681-1


Crane, Eva (1999) The World History of Beekeeping and Honeyhunting: Routledge, New

 York, NY.  ISBN 0-415-92467-7



Fraser, Malcolm H. (1958) History of Beekeeping in Britain.  Bee Research Association

 Ltd. London.


Heresbach, Conrad (1577) Foure Books of Husbandry.  DaCapo Press, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Ltd., Amsterdam, 1971


Vivian, John (1986) Keeping Bees.  Williamson Publishing, Charlotte, Vermont. 

ISBN 0-913589-19-5



Webster, Thomas C.  Getting Started with Bees in Kentucky.  A class handout.


Webster, Thomas C.  The Kentucky Beekeepers Calendar.  A class handout.


  © Melissa Newton