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.
The 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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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…
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.
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
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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.