“Imkers and Angels” – thoughts on a 1917 beekeeping documentary

It is winter. I have recently found a silent-film about beekeeping, a documentary entitled Het Leven der Bijen or The Life of Bees. You can watch it here.

lubert-hivesThe film follows a simple and repetitive structure. First a juddering title-card describes some action, and then we see the scene. “The beekeeper guides us around the hives” is followed by a slow shot showing Jan Luberti walking through a garden lined with upright hives. Another title-card appears. Then we see his springtime inspection. The film follows the keeper and his bees though the events of a year, and finishes with a grinning toddler eating bread and honey, with the wholesome intertitle: “honey on the bread, makes the cheeks red”.

The Life of Bees was filmed somewhere near The Hague in 1917. Nearly a hundred years later, I still recognise the methods and equipment used. There is the same smoker, the same hive-design, the same gentle hand-over-hand motion to inspect both sides of the frame without holding it horizontally. Of course beekeeping is ancient, but there seemed to be a more direct link to this old man in a Dutch garden than to hieroglyphs showing ancient apiarists with their clay hives. It felt like a film that should be shown and shared.


Bees on a frame. Stills from “Het Leven der Bijen“,  eyefilmNL

However, the intertitles were all in Dutch, which would be enough to deter a casual English viewer. Most words were similar enough to English to accurately guess their meaning: the zwerm, the kolonie, the broed, the honig. A few words were close to those from other European languages: the beekeeper is the imker, as he is in German. And some words made sense when read alongside the pictures – the Koningin is evidently the queen, a darren is a drone, the observatiekast is an observation hive – a glass-sided hive which allows the beekeeper to watch the activity of the bees within.

I began to translate it systematically. I would watch each sequence, pause the film, and return to the intertitle, attempting to wrest some sense from the alien words. With the assistance of a dictionary and some translation websites, I began to create the subtitle overlay. The bijen (bees) have overwintert (overwintered)… the swarming queen enters her new paleis (palace)… while in the old hive, the jonggeboren Princessen (newborn princesses) fight for her troon (throne).


“de achtergebleven angels”

Eventually, the imker comes to harvest his honey. In this shot, he lifts a comb from the hive, shakes it, and then brushes the remaining bees from its surface. My first attempt at translating the intertitle produced:  “the beekeeper removes the remaining angels with a mirror”.  

I pause at the word angels. Can it be right? It is a beautifully chosen word to describe the bees. They are no longer just honeybees, but the winged distillers of sweetness, the celestial messengers of the gods. Ancient goddesses were sometimes portrayed as being half-human half-bee, and across cultures, bees have been a symbol of the souls of the dead. However, the word felt awkward in the context; too romantic for a documentary. But why else would the word angels appear? I concluded it was like the “victory women” of the Anglo-Saxon swarm-charm, or had some connection to angels guarding the gates of heaven. They could be militant, sword-bearing, avenging angels. It was a moment of unexpected poetry, neatly capturing the otherworldliness of the lives of the bees.


clearing bees from the comb

I questioned my interpretation of the word ‘mirror’ too. The intertitle definitely said spiegel, which translated unequivocally to ‘mirror’. I wondered whether a mirrored-surface was being be used to remove the bees, if a bee confronted by a moving mirror would be so startled by its own oncoming reflection that it would lose its grip on the comb. It seemed unlikely. I watched the sequence again.

The object, in its black-and-white, blurry, digitised-film-format, did not seem to be any type of mirror. It looked more like a brush, or possibly a long-handled knife? After multiple re-watchings, I concluded that the spiegel must be a specialised type of beekeeping-knife – with a name derived from the mirrored surface of the blade.  

I drafted a letter to a Dutch friend, asking her to check my translation, in particular the mirror and the angels. I wanted to understand if the mirror-knife was real, and whether there was any cultural reason that the bees were referred to as the angels.


removing a sting

Before sending the letter I watched the sequence again, more carefully this time. I saw that at the beginning, a small number of bees fly at Mr Luberti’s face. He winces in pain, and almost instantly, pulls a small looking-glass from his pocket. Using this, he locates the wound, and deftly pinches a sting from his cheek. Then he continues with the honey removal. I check the dictionary, and discover that in Dutch, an angel is not an angel. It shares a root with the English word ‘angle’, and a sense of sharpness too. In Dutch, the angel is not the bee herself, nor any sort of heavenly creature. An angel is the sting of a bee.

The new translation: using a mirror, the bee-keeper removes the remains of the sting.

🐝 🐝 🐝

I know a bee-sting hurts. It feels different from a wasp sting. The pain is less intense, but it lasts for longer, a deep itching in the flesh. There is guilt too, coming with the realisation that the bee has died in defence of its queen and its colony. It is difficult not to anthropomorphise, not to draw parallels with human ideals of duty and sacrifice. In the summer of 1917, as Jan Luberti’s bees were dying in defence of their honey stores, the landscape and people of Europe were being wrecked by the shooting, shelling and gassing of a World War. Summer 1917: Verdun, Menin Road, Passchendaele. It is sweet and honourable…  


A swarm of bees, Oxford

I was watching a swarm-capture when I was first stung. They’ve set up some hives and planted an orchard on a disused sports-field beside the Oxford/Didcot railway line. The swarm had left the hive and settled blackly around the trunk of one of the apple-saplings, which bowed slightly under their weight. There was a confusion of mobile-phone-calls between the novices of the local beekeeping class. One abandoned their child’s birthday party to bring an empty hive. Others arrived, suited like nuclear scientists, and equipped with plastic recycling-crates and an old bedsheet to assist in the capture.

Un-bee-suited, I stood back and watched them shake the swarm clumsily into the crate. It slipped from the tree as a single lump of life, crumbling as it fell. Most bees stayed shrouding their queen, but some rose up in a buzzing mist of anger and confusion. I felt stings on my face but was too fascinated to walk away. I watched as the individual bees re-found their queen, suddenly calming as they caught the scent of her, and crawling into the upturned recycling-box. And I watched the bees from the original hive, commuting calmly through the chaos, pollen-laden and seemingly unaware of the drama of the swarm.


7th-century figure of a bee goddess, Rhodes (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the sting of the bee is part of what makes it so fascinating to us: the ability to cause pain making it more mysterious and unknowable. It forces us to respect its boundaries. I touch my face where I was stung, and I think about the word ‘angel’. The coincidence of it meaning both an insect-sting and a divine creature seems important. In some way, it captures the duality of bees – their peace and their violence; their sweetness and their venom; their spiritual metaphors and their worldly industry. I will watch the bees and try to understand them. Perhaps not ‘understand’ them, but at least learn the gentleness to help sustain them.  

The subtitle file is finished and saved. A final confusion over hunne (which means ‘theirs’, not ‘honey’), and the film is loaded on a laptop, ready for the moment that anyone asks to see a silent black-and-white Dutch documentary on beekeeping. I have saved two versions of the subtitle file. In one, the inter-title describes a beekeeper using a mirror to remove a sting from his face. In the other, he “brushes away the remaining angels”. I like the angels version better.

Jack Pritchard, Maidstone, December 2014

🐝 🐝 🐝

note: I wrote this well before I’d even considered keeping bees myself. Rewatching the film now I can see a lot more detail, but thought I’d share this as I originally wrote it. 


This entry was posted in Stings, Swarms and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to “Imkers and Angels” – thoughts on a 1917 beekeeping documentary

  1. hunneybun says:

    You write beautifully. This is an interesting and inspiring piece. I like the angels too! And also the translation convolutions. Look forward to seeing the film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pritchard237 says:

      Thank you. I was a little worried that it wasn’t quite ‘hands-on’ enough for the blog. I’m hoping that people won’t mind a more reflective piece while there’s a lull for the winter. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thank you so much, that was great to watch backed up by your translations. Is it true they called the queen a king? When i started keeping bees, my mother, Danish and 79, asked if I’d seen the king!

    thanks, Helle


    Liked by 1 person

    • pritchard237 says:

      Hi Helle,
      Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s a female monarch. It’s a ‘koningin’, rather than a ‘koning’, which makes it female. It’s fascinating to see how the perception of bee-genders changed over the years – being as much about politics and society as about biology. A book called “The Hive” by Bee Wilson is excellent on the subject – totally worth adding to your Christmas list if you’ve not read it.
      I recently heard an excellent question on a sort-of related subject. What happens if a drone-brood is fed with royal jelly. Do you get a King Bee? And has anyone ever tried it?


  3. Paul says:

    Bill Turnbull (radio personality and beekeeper) once remarked that if bees didn’t have stings, beekeeping would be like keeping flies and not interesting at all!

    There was a lot of confusion about the sex of the queen in days of yore. Some beekeepers realised “he” was laying eggs so must be a queen, and opinion seems to have swung back and forth over the centuries. It was settled definitively in 1676 when Jan Swammerdam in Holland dissected a queen under a microscope and found ovaries, and someone in Spain worked it out independently shortly afterwards, which was definitive. The knowledge took a few decades to percolate round the scholars of Europe, because of various Armadas and wars. In 1737 it was realised she was the *only* one who got pregnant.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. EarthKeeper Selina says:

    Beautifully written and so very interesting!
    A few insights about Bees I have not heard before.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lindylou says:

    This is an amazing piece of filming. How was Mr. Lamberti, so many years ago, able to film inside the hive showing the battle of the young queens in their fight for regency as well as the emerging bee from her cell whilst colleagues and drones just walk past her with such clarity? I am Dutch and your translations are very well done and your musings about how you got to them make a lovely read. Thank you so much for this introspective bee hive world film. Oh and there was something that made me laugh at the end, almost 100 years later we still do that with the hand shake near to the cheek when something is very tasty, The word the little girl is saying is probably “lekker” which means “Ooh tasty” or “Ooh lovely” Mannerisms as well as deliciousness haven’t changed much then have they?

    Liked by 1 person

    • pritchard237 says:

      Thank you. Yes – the film must have taken a lot of patience, and some very good luck with the observation hive. Another one from a similar era is “Die Biene Maja” (the first 10 minutes available here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijMfe-5P4Q0 ). There’s such amazing detail, especially when considering the equipment they would have been filming it on.

      Here’s the full text of the subtitles. Any suggestions for corrections would be very welcome…

      00:00:01,000 –> 00:00:05,000
      The Life of Bees (1917)

      00:00:06,000 –> 00:00:08,000
      A Study of the Bees
      Produced by HAGHE-FILMFABRIEK

      00:00:08,000 –> 00:00:13,000
      A beekeeper guides us round the beeyard

      00:00:36,00 –> 00:00:38,000
      An observation hive. The entrance.

      00:01:36,000 –> 00:01:44,000
      An old-fashioned straw skep, in which the bees affix honeycomb to the inside wall.

      00:02:28,000 –> 00:02:33,000
      A modern hive. The combs are removable. The first inspection after the winter.

      00:03:18,000 –> 00:03:19,000
      The queen bee hibernates amid a small colony of 4,000 to 5,000 bees.

      00:04:34,000 –> 00:04:35,000
      The Queen Bee

      00:04:53,000 –> 00:04:54,000
      A bee

      00:05:13,000 –> 00:05:24,000
      A comb with young brood. One sees eggs and larva in the cells. Two Queen-cells are built onto the honeycomb

      00:05:50,000 –> 00:05:58,000
      From egg to bee takes 21 days. Larvae and nymphs in their development.

      00:06:46,000 –> 00:06:54,000
      The nymph is mature, and breaks through her cell-cover

      00:08:05,000 –> 00:08:15,000
      In May, the size of the bee-colony is increasing alarmingly, and young queens emerge

      00:08:24,000 –> 00:08:38,000
      In fear of a young successor, the queen decides to leave the hive with a large number of her faithful bees. Scout bees have already located a suitable residence.

      00:08:55,000 –> 00:09:03,000
      The queen joins the emerging swarm

      00:09:19,000 –> 00:09:31,000
      Rather than heading directly to their new home, sometimes a few kilometres away, they leave the hive, and gather the swarm on a branch around the queen

      00:10:01,000 –> 00:10:03,000
      Yet another swarm

      00:10:37,000 –> 00:10:48,000
      Before the swarm moves on, the beekeeper tries to catch the bees by shaking them into a basket.

      00:11:23,000 –> 00:11:32,000
      The swarm capture is not always successful. Sometimes the bees escape anyway.

      00:11:45,000 –> 00:11:52,000
      The bees take the temporary stay in the basket for granted (?)

      00:12:13,000 –> 00:12:17,000
      The bees and the boss do not fear each other.

      00:12:32,000 –> 00:12:42,000
      If all the bees have been outwitted by the beekeeper, he keeps them imprisoned until the evening.

      00:13:50,000 –> 00:14:00,000
      At sunset, the beekeeper provides his captives with a ready-built home

      00:15:18,000 –> 00:15:29,000
      The queen gratefully accepts her new home, and enters her palace, escorted by 30,000 bees.

      00:16:07,000 –> 00:16:21,000
      In their former house, a new drama is now happening. The young princesses will contend for the vacant place on the throne. It is a battle of life and death.

      00:16:52,000 –> 00:17:06,000
      When the bees begin to produce honey an expansion of space is required. A new floor (“honey attic”) is added to the hive, with a grid to prevent the queen from laying eggs there.

      00:19:49,000 –> 00:19:57,000
      When the attic is full of honey, the harvest can begin. The frames can be completely removed from the hive.

      00:20:04,000 –> 00:20:16,000
      The bees do not let the theft of their treasure go unpunished. With the help of a mirror, the beekeeper removes the remaining sting.

      00:20:39,000 –> 00:20:50,000
      The bees have closed the filled cells with wax seals. The beekeeper must open these with a sharp knife.

      00:21:41,000 –> 00:21:53,000
      With the suddenly reduced stock of honey, the bees decide to remove the lazy drones from the hive.

      00:22:43,000 –> 00:22:53,000
      By centrifugal force, the honey is flung from the comb. By extracting it in this way, we preserve the wax structures.

      00:23:35,000 –> 00:23:39,000
      Honey on the bread…
      … makes the cheeks red!


  6. Pingback: “Imkers and Angels” – musings on a 1917 beekeeping documentary — Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group | Sassafras Bee Farm

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