Victorian Twitterstorms

Wherein may be found some fine forgotten lore alongside various engagingly heated debates of the Victorian era

Outrage and apoplexy predate the Internet. Beekeeping has always been a hive of differing opinions, and I’d like to share some examples from a book called Bee Keeping by The Times Bee-Master, published in 1864 in the marvellously florid writing style favoured by the Victorians. The author wrote a column about beekeeping in The Times and got many impassioned responses. In the preface he mentions:

Anonymous troll, c. 1864

Here’s another, longer extract from the book, where the author comments on the idiocy of someone who is waging an anonymous campaign to discredit him. There is a double irony here: in British English, the phrase Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is a tongue-in-cheek reference to anonymous, outraged and opinionated writers of letters to newspapers. Secondly, the The Times Bee-Master kept his own identity private (though The Times has now revealed he was the Rev John Cumming). In what follows, the word Ligurian means Italian [bees].

The Bee-Master rails against his detractors. Click to enlarge

At this time there were few bee books and knowledge was sketchy. Framed hives / foundation weren’t around, the author had heard of but not seen Italian queens. Diagrams in the book show most hives were skeps or skep sized, with a super above, often an insulated bell jar.

What we learn about bees

Early authors were extremely keen observers, thus an old book can still be useful. Even when the interpretation of why something happens may be wrong, the direct observations of the bees’ behaviour is still valid.

Here are some of notable items The Times’ Bee-Master shared:

  • Disabled bees are sometimes helped by others (eg back into a hive). This is an example of direct observation.
  • Huber [an early Swiss entomologist and bee researcher] observed propolis walls being made versus Death’s Head Moths, forming zigzag entrances which were too narrow for them, but only in colonies in regions with DHM and at the time of year the moths actively raided.
  • A doctor driving in a horse drawn cart was stung 30 times by a swarm which settled on him. It was thought the vibration of the moving cart irritated the bees.
  • If the queen dies labour stops until a princess ascends the throne.
  • Simple hives with simple entrances are best: long tortuous entrance tunnels just makes for irritable bees. There were many overcomplex hive designs in his view.
  • ‘Sugar dissolved in ale is good for hungry bees’…. although he seems unaware that the impurities in brown sugar gives bees digestive problems. He talks of barley sugar but not refined white sugar, which would have been an expensive luxury in his day. There may be something worth investigating here, as other old bee books obsess about beer. Micronutrients?
  • Bees can get drunk & disorderly.
  • Puffs of air (but NOT your breath) are good at shifting bees – I can confirm this
  • Because it was mentioned in another authoritative text, people were experimenting with puffballs in their smokers at this time… and occasionally killing their bees with it. It turns out there are several fungal species all called ‘puffball’ and some are more toxic than others, and even if you have the right type it is easy to overdose the bees. They also tried chloroform, again this killed them.
  • Bees are much less defensive when they are used to you / people being around. This is mentioned no less than 4 times: once he is quoting Huber, once another book, twice his own experience. Particularly in June & July, ‘they are too busy to be bothered with you, they love company’.
  • Defensive bees are healthy (not sure I agree with that)
  • Don’t station beehives on boats, many bees fall in the water and drown.
  • One diagram shows a hive with a thermometer behind a window. He remarks that overheating leads to swarming.
  • (While talking about how to tell if you’ve bought a prime swarm or a cast: bear in mind this is talking of skeps:) a prime swarm begins building comb in the middle top of a hive, whereas a cast begins comb next to a wall.
  • Foraging in bad weather is a sign of low stores. Bear in mind he was using Amm (black bees), which according to another old book tend to stop foraging when they have “enough” stores for winter.
  • The slower wax sets, the more solid and bubble-free it is.
  • Whilst discussing drones and their secondary function as heater bees for the young, he points out an interesting correlation: you only get drones in summer. During the summer the workers are out foraging so cannot act as heaters. The drones only leave the nest [on mating flights] at the warmest part of the day when heating is superfluous. At the end of the year the workers don’t forage and the drones are kicked out.

What we learn about beekeepers

  • Firstly, it’s nice to know that once you’ve put your views in print, people will still be discussing your attitude 156 years later. Something to think on next time you fire off a tweet.
  • An interesting correlation to present day internet trolls, is how the most vocal and aggressive critics are careful to conceal their identities.
  • Beekeepers tend to assume their local experience is universal. The author received other acrimonious letters concerning his writings on subjects like multiple queens in hives, whether you can drum bees from one box to another etc; we now know all these things are possible, it depends on the bee race / forage pattern etc. A modern example from my own experience is when I was criticised by a Master Beekeeper about my own habit of collecting swarms. In his opinion they were all worthless and aggressive. He had collected about 200 over his lifetime, killing the queens and using the workers to reinforce his honey factories. I’ve now collected about 40-50 swarms and only encountered a couple of slightly defensive ones. I have since heard he has a reputation for rough handling. (Ha! See how I get a dig in at my own detractors?)


Should any person of fine character feel an upswelling of urgent requirement to ventilate their spleen about possible poppycock, as may be noted above, they are called upon most courteously to utilise the most suitably splendiferous Victorian language!

This entry was posted in Books, Newspaper articles and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Victorian Twitterstorms

  1. Juli Cohen says:

    What a fantastic article, Paul. A joy to read! 🙂


  2. Lindylou says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed your splendiferous tale Paul, thank you most courteously


  3. Paul says:

    Madam, I thank you most fulsomely for your commendation, and wish you and your bees a good day. *Tips hat*


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