Celebrating World Bee Day

Anton Janša- the pioneer of beekeeping

If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man. Albert Einstein.

Let us raise a toast to the humble bee. Or if you prefer, the bumble bee. I cannot assert with any degree of authority if the bee, be it ne’er so humble or bumble, can lay any genuine claim to humility as an inborn trait. I just put that in because the two words, humble and bumble, rhymed. Which is usually a good enough reason for any hack writer to get started on an article. Naturally, that raises the valid question as to why I woke up yesterday morning and decided to write a paean on the bee or, to give it its biologically generic name, Anthophila. My research on the subject further reveals that there are more than 20,000 known species of the bee and possibly, several hundred more variants. That’s a lot of bees to be getting along with, and the one thing you want to avoid are these flying insects buzzing around your head at any time. Get your head caught in one of these angry swarms, and your face could be rearranged forever – with the help of plastic surgery. If you spot a beehive anywhere in your line of vision, pause and admire a stunning marvel of nature, but on no account touch it.

On World Bee Day, however, I have no wish to dwell on the more unpleasant aspects of the bee’s behavioural characteristics. There are plenty of perfectly good things to say about the bee (honey for starters), and I shall manfully strive to focus on these. Particularly because we have been celebrating World Bee Day on May 20th, to mark the birth anniversary of Slovenian beekeeper Anton Janša, widely regarded as the pioneer of modern beekeeping. Seeing as he was born in 1734, it is clear that beekeeping as a hobby and profession has a hoary old tradition. I am somewhat handicapped by the fact that there exists no further useful information on Mr. Janša barring his strange obsession with these busy, winged creatures. This bee lover was of Austrian descent which explains his appointment as the first beekeeping teacher at the Viennese imperial court. From early childhood, he was as dedicated in his quest to suss out information about the bees as the latter themselves were in single-mindedly focusing on hive building and honey producing.

We can set the domestic scene. I imagine the young Anton coming home every evening, joyously showing off to his parents the many stings he has had to endure from his favourite insects. ‘Look mummy, I got seventeen red stings on my arms and cheeks today. Aren’t they lovely?’ Mummy freaks out and heads towards the kitchen looking for some ancient herbal ointment to ease the pain and lessen the swelling while muttering under her breath, ‘he will not listen, he will play with those bees.’ But the boy will have none of it. Anton had firmly made up his mind to keep bees – a few stings here and there were little more than a flea-bite, a necessary collateral damage.  Beekeeping was thus born not just as an interesting if dangerous hobby, but one that was to become a cottage industry of considerable financial significance in the years to come. The stings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to paraphrase Shakespeare and begging his pardon. Yes, we will come to the honey part of it presently.

On this very significant day, when we are doffing our hats to bees of every genus and recognising their immensely industrious nature, their innate architectural genius in building those picture-perfect beehives and honeycombs, it is not my intention to take you on a National Geographic type excursion into the habits and everyday chores of the bee species. If they reproduce like rabbits, I shan’t go into the hows and whys. Some of their habits are pretty weird, mind you, like the queen bee literally making a meal of her king bee, assuming there is one, if he fails to obey her slightest command. Not unlike her other distinguished colleague from the insect kingdom, the highly poisonous ‘black widow’ spider which wouldn’t think twice about gobbling up its kith and kin at the drop of a hat, having invited them to her parlour. At the human level, there have been dark suggestions that in 1567 Mary Queen of Scots did her husband Lord Darnley in, but it remained in the realm of rumour and saucy palace gossip. Unlike the Scottish queen, the queen bee from the Queendom of Anthophila does not leave anything to idle speculation. It goes about its murderous business with cannibalistic efficiency.

Moving away from the darker side of bee life, as we are celebrating World Bee Day and singing hosannas to Anton Janša and his pioneering efforts in the arcane hobby of beekeeping, my thoughts turned to music. So many songs have been written and sung, leaving the hit parades buzzing the world over. (This is where I introduce the honey motif.) I felt this is a good time to look at some of these memorable numbers by famous artists that celebrate the sweetness of honey and the bee that is responsible for bringing the sticky sweet syrup into our homes and our breakfast tables. We are, thanks to Hollywood, familiar with the many terms of endearment this sticky, gooey substance has inspired in men – honey / hon / honey-bunch / honey-kins and so on. From there to bursting into song is but a lilting step.

This is a purely personal and subjective selection and could be conspicuous by the songs that went missing from your list. So here is a list of my personal song favourites on the subject of bees and honey. In so doing, I once again bow to this singular, largely unsung individual, Anton Janša, who gave us something sweet to cheer and sing about even if, in the process, he was stung pleasurably. 

A Taste of Honey. I first heard this beautiful song performed by The Beatles though the original composition is credited to Scott / Marlow. The song featured in their debut album, Please Please Me in 1962. While there have been many other cover versions of this song, for me the young Paul McCartney sets the benchmark and shows early signs of his melodic crooning talent as he takes the lead – A taste of honey / Tasting much sweeter than wine. It was one of those rare Beatles albums where they covered other composers’ songs, till they became the most prolific singer-songwriters themselves.

Honey. Bobby Goldsboro’s version of this iconic 1968 hit was one of those many songs that was played over and over again at parties and get-togethers during our college days. It topped the charts all over the world with its evocative lyrics set to a simple, hummable melody. The lyrics were mushy, demanding Kleenex tissues readily at hand. It was a time when people thronged to cinema halls to weep over Love Story. A sampler. She was always young at heart / Kinda dumb and kinda smart / And I loved her so / And I surprised her with a puppy / Kept me up all Christmas Eve two years ago / And honey I miss you.

Honeycomb. Jimmie Rodgers was a hugely popular American singer in the 1950s with a string of hits to his name, none more popular than Honeycomb. Never a Sunday passed during Calcutta’s favourite radio programme, Musical Band Box, without this song being played. Again, a simple and singable song with the honeybee garnering all the attention. Well it’s a darn good life / And it’s kinda funny / How the Lord made the bee / And the bee made the honey / And the honeybee lookin’ for a home / And they called it honeycomb.

Sugar Sugar. This 1969 teeny-bop hit had children and adults dancing to the tune of The Archies’ bouncy track, based on an animated TV show inspired by the Archie comics. The lyrics, if you can call it that, does not exercise the mind, more the legs – Sugar, ah honey, honey / You are my candy girl / And you got me wanting you. As a stunning variant, the second line starts with Honey, ah sugar, sugar. Not exactly the Gettysburg Address, but the pop world loved it. What is more, the song was played in the command module of Apollo 12 on the way to the moon in November 1969!

Honey Pie. The Beatles again, in 1968, gave us this jaunty little ditty, a direct homage to the old-time, British music hall style. The lyrics, mawkish but nothing to write home about, suggests a hopeless admirer yearning for the company of a Hollywood starlet. You became a legend of the silver screen / And now the thought of meeting you makes me weak in the knee / Oh, honey pie / You are driving me frantic / Sail across the Atlantic / To be where you belong / Honey pie come back to me.

Tupelo Honey. One of Van Morrison’s most beautiful songs, the Irish troubadour uses the theme of the unique brand of honey produced in the city of Tupelo (Elvis Presley’s birthplace) in Mississippi, to describe the love of his life. You can take all the tea in China / Put it in a big brown bag for me / Sail right round all the seven oceans / Drop it straight into the deep blue sea / She’s as sweet as tupelo honey / She’s an angel of the first degree / Just like honey, baby, from the bee. The much-acclaimed 1997 film, Ulee’s Gold, features Peter Fonda as a beekeeper who treasures the honeyed nectar from the tupelo tree. Van Morrison’s title song was played over the end credits of the film.

Like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, on honey-dew have I fed in this piece, and it is all down to an unsung Slovenian beekeeper’s pioneering efforts nearly 300 years ago. Happy birthday, Anton Janša.

Note: all the songs mentioned in this piece can be accessed on YouTube or Spotify. Just key in the song and artist name.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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