Honeybees and WWI

"Like Bees" Collage using bees wax from our honeybees. Note, the yellow/orange color is the color of unpurified beeswax.

“Like Bees,” photo collage using bees wax from our honeybees. Note, the yellow/orange color is the color of unpurified beeswax. It smells good too.

I’ve been working on an article about bees for Local Banquet, a quarterly Vermont magazine about local food, sustainable food systems and the people behind them so I got a little behind in my WWI postings. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about WWI and my blog.

My great uncle Harry was an avid beekeeper, even when he moved from the Pennsylvania farm to Jamestown after the War. But in 1918, while he was in France, his sister, Esther (my grandmother), took care of his bees as well as his horses. She took off the honey that fall and sold it to buy war savings stamps. (Stamps were issued by the U.S. Treasury Department to fund the war, unlike Liberty Bonds, stamps were designed for the common people.)

In September, 1918, Harry wrote in one of his letters to Esther, “Whatever the bees make is yours so do as you please with it.” Later in life, he would repay her beekeeping kindness by regularly stinging her arthritic knuckles with bees from his hives. Bee venom therapy is still being used today to treat arthritis, tendonitis and other illness. I’ve even tried it on myself with mixed results. For those interested, Health and the Honeybee by Charles Mraz is a fascinating book about this topic.

Beekeeping programs were instituted in the U.S. and Britain during and after WWI as therapy for injured soldiers. The mindfulness needed when working with honeybees was thought to be therapeutic as well as being productive; honey was a useful product during the War when sugar was often in short supply. One of the things Harry requested from the folks back home to send in his Christmas package was honey. “Get a very small jar and put some honey in it too but be sure it don’t break. Fill up the box with cookies and cake, not paper.” He admitted in another letter to having a sweet tooth and often wrote about the goodies from home.

While Harry was interested in eating the honey, honey was also used as treatment for burns, abrasions and other wounds during WWI. It actually worked too. Honey has many antimicrobial properties which prevent infections, reduces inflammation, and helps the tissue heal properly. It was also good for treating chemical and thermal afflictions to the eyes, as well as gastrointestinal ailments.

Honeybees were something Harry knew very well so when describing the heavy fighting he’d been through in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he compared it to his bees; “I never thought so many machine gun bullets could fly around and not get more of us, they sounded like the bees as thick as when they come over the orchard or in the hive.” I’ve read that analogy ‘bullets whizzing by like bees’ in other books written after the War. It makes me wonder if that was just a saying or if machine gun bullets whizzing by you really do sound like bees. I hope I never have to find out. The analogy is clearly cliché now and not too many people today have actually heard a bunch of bees buzzing around them especially with our current honeybee decline, but in the early part of the 20th century when beekeeping and honeybees were very common, it was something that many people could easily relate to which may be the reason it became a common saying.

I glad I’m continuing the beekeeping tradition that started in my family at least100 years ago. (Maybe longer. I don’t know if my great grandfather or his family were beekeepers back in Sweden.) After kicking out the drones this fall and leaving them to die in the cold, our girls are now tucked in their hives for winter. The temperature swings and long winters are especially tough on Vermont bees, and we’re still learning about beekeeping as evidenced by the multiple swarms we had this summer. But hopefully, they’ll make it through.