We think in this age of beekeeping as a small time pursuit for either the small business or for some form of esoteric pass-time. In the past bee-keeping was anything but that. As an industry in Eastern Europe it probably reached a climax around 1200-1400. The reason that Eastern Europe was probably much better at producing honey than the west was simply that it had larger relatively undisturbed forests…. Or at least the forests had a smaller head of both human and domesticated animal population. Large quantities of grazing will eventually produce grass, whereas a smaller quantity of grazing will induce flowering ground cover and ideal areas for bees.
The Germans in classical times used to venerate their beekeepers (this reference I can not find) and they achieved a priest like significance within their tribes. I could never quite get my head around this until I understood the economic significance of honey as well. Most of the following comes from Studies in Historical Geography (1983 Volume 1 (Academic Press) edited by Bater and French). The particular essay is Russians and the Forest by R.A. French p23-44.
French talks of the vast quantities of berries that could be picked by the peasants of Russia with productive areas producing up to 100kg/hectare of berries (bilberries and cowberries) per year as well as up to half a ton of mushrooms etc. However the honey was the most impressive with one village in 1599, Oreshenko in Belorussia having 1044 “bee-trees” listed in their records. 94 were oak and 950 were pine. 99 swarms were counted with an occupancy of roughly 10:1. In other parts the occupancy got as high as 6:1.
Bees made it into the Russian law books in the 12th century when the law codes, Russaya Pravda, were produced. In 1529 Lithuanian statutes also laid don laws against bee-tree destruction, determining that you could not go too close when ploughing or damage the tree by fire. In economic terms bees provided the most valuable forest resource and was one of the key drivers to eventual Russian expansion into Siberia.
Just how important was this industry? It was a major trading commodity in both Russia and Lithuania. As an example one nobleman, one Prince Suyatoslav of Kiev, had a honey store, in 1146, that totalled 500 berkovtsy, or 80 tonnes. At some times peasants were supposed to give half their honey takings to the crown in Russia, so honey became the business of everyone from peasant to csar.
In some areas peasants were employed to look after the crown’s bee-trees, and even in making new ones. (This was done by hacking out appropriate hollows in the trees.) The volume of honey produced was one thing but also beeswax was bought and sold as well. In the sixteenth century Customs Rolls of boats going down the river Neman to Konigsberg 600tonnes of beeswax was recorded as having passed by in just 6 weeks. Even in the 18th century the trade continued with the expansion towards the south and east and prime honey lands were moving east and south with the expansion. At that time the Province of Voronezh was exporting 900tonnes of honey per year. It was thus not really difficult to see why both the peasant and the aristocracy were interested in bees.
With the expansion of Russia in the 16th to 20th centuries one finds the forest quality of the interior diminishing and thus the bee-farming being pushed more often than not towards the frontiers. Here the “natural” (I am not a fan of this word as it implies no human interference, which is rubbish) forest was less disturbed and the berries still proliferated and thus was the perfect bee place. The more livestock the less bees I am assuming.
(Kindly posted by Archie on this site.)