Being the same date as the birthday of Anton Janša, the 18th century pioneer of modern beekeeping techniques, it only makes sense that today is World Bee Day. Though only the second annual such day, it couldn’t happen at a more necessary time: the last number of years have seen a sharp decline in bee populations due to an unfolding number of factors including some of the pesticides that we use. More than just making honey, the over 16,000 known species of bees are pollinators, meaning they are one of the “heavy lifters” in the group that is responsible for 84% of crops grown for human consumption (not to mention livestock feed), including 400 different types of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and plants used to make things like coffee, tea, and cocoa. With today highlighting the work and the important role of bees, let’s take a moment and look at the word itself.
Much like the bee itself – with a known origin dating back to the Cretaceous period (more than 66 million years ago) – the word is nothing new. Our word, which is basically taken to mean a ‘stinging insect of the Apis genus that lives in a hierarchical society and produces wax and honey’ is a modification of the Old English beo, which comes from the Proto-Germanic bion, which originated as the still-older Pre-Indo-European bhei. The first known usage of the word to relative to actual bees can be found in the Paris Psalter, a sumptuously illuminated Byzantine manuscript of the Book of Psalms created around 1050, with the beginning of Psalm 118:12 stating: “They compassed me about like bees”.
In a wider sense, applying to a larger group of similar insects that have long been called bees, such as the Mason Bee or Carpenter Bee, this usage occurred a century later (around 1150), first in the Old English Leechdoms (medical texts), which noted that: “field bee honey puts some to sleep”.
Beyond the activities of the bees themselves, the following centuries brought us many uses of the term in a more figurative and comparative sense. For example, the phrase “busy as a bee” can be traced to William Stewart’s translation of Hector Boece’s 1535 work in The Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland (The Book of the Chronicles of Scotland), where he mentions that: “Now are the maids also busy as a bee.” The concept of having “a head full of bees” or a “bee in your bonnet”, meaning a fantasy or eccentric whim, was first used in Gavin Douglas’ Scottish translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: Book 8’s prologue-written in 1553- asks of Venus: “What task be thou in bed, with head full of bees?” Finally, the idea of a “bee” as a community-based activity done together – think of a spelling-bee or quilting-bee – was first fashioned in a 16 October 1769 edition of The Boston Gazette, noting that: “Last Thursday about twenty young Ladies met at the house of Mr. L. on purpose for a Spinning Match; (or what is called in the Country a Bee).”
In terms of keeping, dealing with, and benefiting from bees, most of these terms originate from, unsurprisingly, around the time of Janša. The 1609 work Good Speed to Virginia is the first to mention the potential gains of a bee garden (“The master of the bee-garden..reapeth a greater gain by his wax and honey.”). By 1675, The London Gazette was advocating: “A new Invention for the Improvement of Bees, by certain Bee-houses and Colonies.” Lastly, more than a century later, we finally see the first mention of a bee-keeper, with William Kirby and William Spence in the 1817 book An Introduction to Entomology begging a statement with: “It is a saying of bee-keepers in Holland, that [etc.].”
As can be witnessed from the word, bees are highly important. So, even if you can’t open your own apiary or grow a field of wildflowers, maybe, on this World Bee Day, think about what you can do to help the bees in your area- even if it just means using a different product in your garden.