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20 May 2022

Raising a glass to Mead, nectar of the gods

Although revered and considered sacred for thousands of years, bees are threatened by pests, diseases and habitat loss. In 2017, the United Nations declared that every May 20th would be World Bee Day to draw attention to the important role they play in our lives. Let's take a look at some of the historic customs and practices related to bees and mead, the sweet honey wine common to many cultures, and find out how you can help save the bees. 

The honeymoon period

The Celts were so enamoured with honey that they devoted an entire month to its celebration. Every May, they collected honey for the making of mead, a fermented wine that predates the use of grapes. The Celtic calendar and culture was lunar, and May's moon was referred to as the Honey Moon. Marriage ceremonies were performed on May Day, and the happy couples would then spend a month of sweet solitude, drinking mead and bonding.

Sculpture of Bee in Pollination Exhibition at The Clayx
Floral sculpture of a bee in the Pollination Exhibition at The Calyx. Photo: James Horan

The healing power of honey

The people of Wales had a penchant for adding herbs and spices to their brews. Welsh mead makers were known as meddyglyns (medicinal liquor makers) because their spicy infusion was thought to have medicinal properties.

Although drinking alcohol was forbidden, the healing power of mead meant it was the exception to the rule in the Muslim world. Famed philosopher Abu Yûsuf ibn Ishâq al-Kindī (died c. 870) of Baghdad discussed the use of mead in his medical formulary Aqrābādhīn

The birds and the bees

Honey was held sacred and used as an offering to the gods in India. The ancient Hindu text, the Rig Veda, mentions madhu, the Indian word for the fermented honey wine known to the Celts as mead. Also aligned with the Celts, Vedic-era Hindus associated the honey bee with matters of the heart; the god Kamadeva presided over pleasure and erotic love. Spring was his season, and he shot floral arrows at his targets with a sugar cane bow and a bowstring made from a strand of bees.

Another Bee Sculpture in Pollination Exhibition at The Calyxx
Floral sculpture of a bee in the Pollination Exhibition at The Calyx. Photo: James Horan

Under the influence

Mead was also a communal ritual drink in southern Brazil. The Mocovi people would hang the dried pelt of a jaguar or deer by its corners, pour honey and wax into it and add water. A few days later, after fermentation had worked its magic, they were able to drink the same intoxicating offering that was common to the rituals and rites of passage of their peers globally.

Sweet sacrifice

The ancient Egyptians took the production and ritual use of honey to the next level. They fed it to their sacrificial animals before ceremonies to please the gods with an even sweeter offering. Recipes in the Ebers Papyrus show us that honey was a common ingredient in herbal medicines and cosmetics.

The Egyptians were some of the first people to domesticate the honey bee; they kept clay hives on barges that floated down the Nile, following the flowers as they bloomed. The final stops on the ancient apiarists' journey were the ports of Lower Egypt, where the precious cargo was unloaded and sold.

It's time to honour the pollinators

While it's undeniable that bees have been integral to humanity's religious, medicinal and mercantile practices for thousands of years, they're more than manufacturers of libations, sweet treats and salves. Bees are excellent pollinators; more than 70% of our food crops require pollination from bees and other insects; bees play a crucial part in safeguarding our food security.

In addition to the European honey bee, introduced to pollinate settler crops 200 years ago, Australia has more than 2000 native bee species, many of them stingless which makes their hives vulnerable. Some of our native plants can only be pollinated by the native bees, and they are under threat from the destruction of their natural habitats, pests and diseases. If we don't have bees, there won't be enough food to go round. It's as simple as that. No Bees, No Food

References and further reading

Letters from the Hive, Stephen Buchmann with Banning Repplier (2006).
A History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (2009).
200 years since the honey bee came to our shores, Australian Geographic, Candice Marshall (2022).
Banner image: KarenHBlack, istock.


Category: History
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