14 June 2018 – The Profit of Bees and Honey: Beekeeping Manuals on the cusp of scientific study, 1568-1657

Beginning in the sixteenth-century, beekeeping manuals were published in English by a variety of authors each offering a method for extracting honey from beehives. This paper examines these early ‘how-to’ manuals, paying specific interest to how honey is conceptualised as a product for human consumption and use. From Thomas Hill’s 1568 treatise, A Profitable instruction of the perfect ordering of Bees, through to Samuel Purchas 1657, A Theatre of political Flying Insects debates abounded regarding the medical and health benefits, the potential as a sweetener, and concerning the nature of honey as a substance.

On the 14 June 2018, I gave a 40-minute paper to the Food History Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on the topic of beekeeping books in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries. This was the first outing for this research and the first time that I had shared my examination into early modern bees, in a public forum. I focused this paper on a small corpus of ‘bee-books’ identified as ‘how-to’ type manuals (i.e. books that solely or in part provide guidance and training to beekeepers in how to manage a hive). This corpus was derived from the 1979, British Bee Books: A Bibliography, 1500-1976. That book has 74 entries for the period of 1500 to 1700. These I narrowed down to 37 which might be called ‘how-to’ manuals, and then to 17 by ignoring (for now) herbals and published classical works.

Event: Food History Seminar

Speaker: Matthew Phillpott

Location: Institute of Historical Research, University of London

Date: 14 June 2018, 5.30pm

Summary of the Talk

The history of honey as a product used by humans is a fascinating one, reaching back at least to ancient Egypt and featuring heavily in mythologies, morality stories, and religious books across the entire world. Beekeeping ‘how-to’ guidebooks are part of that story. In England, these books arose within a century of the printing press, quickly developing into an intellectual conversation about the nature of the honey bee and the development of best practices in managing hives and extracting honey and wax.

‘How-to’ manuals are, by their nature, made with a specific intention and purpose. They do not tell us much about actual day-to-day practices but attempt to elicit change to bring about best practice. They do not tell us much about actual consumption, market prices, or general knowledge, but they do tell us something about how, in this instance, honey and beekeeping were envisaged in an ideal world. They also tell us something about how the debate intended to improve knowledge, understanding, and innovation and how the written word was positioned in learned circles to achieve those aims. What did they hope to achieve by producing such writings? This question should be kept in mind when studying each one of these beekeeping manuals.

What is Honey?

Ten years into the reign of Elizabeth I, Thomas Hill published into the London market the first ‘how-to’ manual on beekeeping in English, based in large part on a German text by a physician called Georg Pictorius. Within that book, there is an interest in identifying exactly what honey is, borrowing knowledge and arguments from the ancient writers, Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Isidore, and Palladius amongst others. Hill writes that honey is ‘the dewe of some liquid matter’ or alike to salt ‘gathered there on the leaves of trees’, or perhaps ‘a sweat from heaven, or a certaine spittle of the stares, or a iuyce of the aire purging it selfe’. In other words, Hill argues that honey is deposited from the sky in the form of droplets which cover flowers and other plants in a type of dew. 

This view was still present in Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchie, first published in 1609, and in Richard Remnant’s A Discourse or Historie of Bees published in 1637. Butler added that honeydew fell only in warm weather, explaining why Bees were more prolific on hot days, whilst Remnant added that the honeydew collected by Bees was altered when taken back to the hive, turning its wet, liquid form into something ‘thicke and hard’. Beyond the mid-point of the seventeenth-century, Samuel Purchas summed up the accumulated knowledge about the honey bee, and once again pointed to the idea of honey deriving from a type of dew from the skies. He did, however, add to Remnant’s description of it thickening in the hive, by explaining that the Bees hold the honeydew in their stomachs and then purge and concoct it to make it a better preservative.


Interconnected to this understanding of where honey comes from, Charles Butler made inquiries into why some honey hardens from its runny golden form into a harder white honey. He argued that what was often believed to be waxy deposits in extracted honey, was often something else entirely. Butler wrote:

If you put it to your tongue, it hath the taste of hony, which wax hath not. If you feele it betweene your warme fingers, it muttereth apart, where wax sticketh fast together. If you put it to the fire, it melteth not, as waxe doth. And where as wax is al of one colour, that is white, this is of divers colours. Therefore sense doth say it is no waxe.

This non-wax substance, Butler calls Ambrosia. In this, he was not far off the mark. Ambrosia is now sometimes called bee pollen or bee bread and is essentially flower pollen stored in cells with bee saliva and a drop of honey. Honey is one type of food that bees consume, the other is this fermented pollen. Nonetheless, the reason why honey crystallises is mainly due to the different types of flowers that bees forage on for their nectar (for example, rapeseed is well known to crystallise rapidly compared to other types of flowers). Ambrosia is only one small part of that process; the pollen particles in honey provide something for the crystals to latch onto as they transform the thick liquid into something harder.

Extracting Honey

The authors of beekeeping ‘how-to’ manuals offered a variety of methods for extracting honey, most of which boiled down to a debate whether the Bees should be killed in the process. In skep beekeeping – where the honeycomb is tightly joined onto the hive frame, it is not so easy to extract with an entire swarm of angry bees fighting for what, essentially, belongs to them.

Thomas Hill, for example, recommended death, suggesting that the hive should be over-turned on top of a fire of straw, dry flax, or yellow brimstone. John Levett, writing a little before Butler, but left unpublished until 1634, provided the loudest voice for killing the bees when extracting honey. In his The Ordering of Bees, Levett argued that the chief concern should be maximum profit with the least hurt and destruction to the Bees. It is therefore for their own benefit, he claims, that colonies selected for extraction are killed otherwise they would rob other hives or work idly, causing a nuisance. Richard Remnant, writing in 1637 suggests two different methods for killing the bees.

However, around the same time there were other writers suggesting methods for preserving the bees during the extraction process. By publishing a series of correspondences about beekeeping, Samuel Hartlib, in his The Reformed Commonwealth of Bees, offered several means by which that might be done, whilst Samuel Purchas, in his Theatre of Political Flying Insects (1657), for instance, argued that killing the bees is ‘foolish’.

Recipes and Medicines

The ‘how-to’ books contain various suggestions for how honey could be used for profit, both by the individual and the wider commonwealth of England. Edmund Southerne is interesting in this regard, for he bases the whole purpose of his 1593 treatise around the idea that too much honey is sent abroad due to a lack of interest at home. He complains that it is the fashion of women of wealth and station to satisfy their desire for novelty and exotic imports such as sugar, at the expense of what he calls better quality local produce. He also tells an odd little story at the end of his treatise which suggests that ‘honey, money, and wax’ could be used for tithes, but that a landlord ordering a swarm of bees is asking for trouble. 

Some twenty years earlier, Thomas Hill had offered a variety of recipes – often alcoholic – for using honey and suggested a variety of purposes that honey could be put to for internal health or healing injuries to flesh and hair. He also argues that that persons of a cold nature should consume honey in a hot broth and that the young, who are generally of ‘untemperate hotness’ will find honey hurtful as it will turn to choler in them. Hill is one of only a few writers of bee manuals to refer to the predominant belief-system of humours.

Richard Remnant, writing some decades later, is an exception. He refers to Bees as ‘very hot and fiery’ and thus honey is ‘likewise hot, though extracted out of cold and mild flowers’. Remnant also gave more recipes for mead-like drinks. Indeed, he appears to have preferred his Mead to have a strong honey flavour, suggesting that it should be made ‘so full of the honey, that it will bear a hen-egg swimming as broad as a sixpence on the top’. This, he claims, was an extremely healthy drink, that is ‘good against a cold consumption, or cold watery stomacke, as also against divers other both inward & outward diseases’.

Some Conclusions

Early modern beekeeping ‘how-to’ manuals were based around the idea of profit and best practice, they argued over evidence – some claiming that the ancients provided all the knowledge on the subject that was necessary, whilst others proclaimed that experience and observation was key – and they speculated over the nature of honey, and how best to extract it from hives. Most, but not all, were interested in recipes for various types of Mead and honey drinks, and all mentioned its medicinal uses, often listing some of the many uses that honey could be put to for healing.

As the seventeenth-century progressed there was a definite movement away from classical authority, and more arguments made that questioned the old knowledge and critically compared it to what could be observed. Study of the Bee and beekeeping was beginning to become a science. This would only grow as the century progressed. The microscope would eventually solve the question of Bee gender, whilst new hives were developed that better-enabled inspection and easier extraction of honey without killing the bees inside. 

Different types of publication also emerged. Initially most beekeeping guidance was offered in the form of beekeeping or husbandry manuals, occasionally linked to gardening handbooks. As the period progressed, zoologies, encyclopaedias, and journal articles added to the mix, growing and expanding the accumulated knowledge, but a key question remains: how much of this knowledge reached the ordinary beekeeper? How much did practice change? The answer appears to be one of slow alteration. Few beekeepers probably read the early handbooks, and many of the later works were intended solely for scholarly intrigue. Nonetheless, practice did begin to alter, new technologies did come into force, and new knowledge about the honey bee began to change understanding and expectation. The early beekeeping books, therefore, offer a glimpse into a world in-between; one in which new knowledge is beginning to over-rule old facts, and new technologies begin to offer new solutions, but one not quite ready for the scientific analysis of subsequent centuries. 

This paper was presented to an audience of around 12 people for the Food History Seminar on the 14 June 2018. Subsequently, I wrote a short article for the School of Advanced Study news site, Talking Humanities, and then, in July this summary of its contents.

The Profit of Bees and Honey: An Early Modern Perspective 

Talking Humanities
19 June 2018
Matthew Phillpott