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The practice of keeping bees was so widespread in the past that a large number of people surveyed know how to do so. It is also true that those people who have never kept bees have a lot of misgivings about those insects and consider them to be highly dangerous.

In each community, there were usually several people who had beehives, even though their number was not high. They thus supplied themselves with wax and honey. Few people had large beehives and even fewer managed to make a profit from keeping them.

The people surveyed recalled different ways of working with those insects that range from such archaic practices as looting the nest or killing the colony, to more recent production and exploitation processes, which are quite sophisticated.

The ethnographic data gathered in our current surveys and those collected bibliographically reveal that, as bees produce two products, wax and honey, the wax production was more important, given the household’s obligations regarding the dead in the traditional world.

One thing that catches one’s attention is the way of referring to the bee and the hive, along with the words used in Basque. Even though the most usual term, erlea, refers to each inspect separately, that same word, in the singular, is used for the main bee, the queen, or even the set of bees in the hive, which explains how erlakumea (lit. bee breeding) is even used to form a new hive. This use may be related to expressions such as collect a bee (Bernedo-A) which refers to the whole hive.

There are a large number of formulas and ways of addressing the bees in the Basque language that use the polite plural form of address, zuek, despite their being animals. In Spanish-speaking areas, the expression people has also been found as a synonym of “bees” (Apodaca, Ayala-A).

As regards the reasons for including bees in a chapter on livestocking and shepherding, bee-keeping should be considered as just a further livestock farming activity. That may not seem to be the case when bees are considered to be individuals that are hard to control in the same way as other domesticated animals. But when it is taken into account that each hive is a static compartment and can therefore be owned, and even more so when the hive is a closed area with walls and a roof, this practice can be seen to be not as different from raising other animals in stables and pens. Another added nuance is the fact that some of the people surveyed referred to the set of insects living in the hive as livestock. Furthermore, some people call the activity of collecting the nectar from the flowers as grazing, which puts the bees on a par with the other herbivorous domesticated animals. And in a large area of Las Encartaciones in Bizkaia, curiously enough, the word taste is used for both extracting the honey from the hives and for milking cows and ewes.

In contrast with what happens with the people whose job is to raise other animals, a folk term was not found for the person who looked after bees. Therefore, when reference is made in this chapter to apiarist, it must be remembered that it is not a folk term; not even beekeeper, which is a little disparaging, has been used.

Nowadays, apiculture is not as wide spread as a practice but, in the same way that has occurred with other livestock farming practices, even though there are fewer people involved, the number of hives per venture has increased considerably.

Beliefs and lore about bees

In the past, the custom of telling the bees about the death of the man or lady of the house, and occasionally that of any member of the family, was widespread. The person tasked with telling them was usually the heir, widow or widower, a relative and even a neighbour or a friend. That announcement was mainly for two reasons: According to some, that prevented the hive from dying; and to others the bees would produce more wax to light the family burial site. In the latter case, the announcement became a request to increase wax production. The custom was also noted of the heir simply informing the bees that the owner had died and reassuring them that he would in charge of looking after them.

In Larraun (N), when a member of the family died, the bees were told that they must produce more wax: “Alkoa il da ta egin zazu argezari geiago! Azkar, azkar!” (So-and-so has died. Come on, make more wax! Quickly, quickly!). This was due to the need to have wax to make candles for the Church.

In the part of the Basque Country within France, the bees had to be told when the gentleman or lady of the house died.

In the past, there was deep respect for those insects. In Carranza (B), the oldest enthusiasts said that that respect was such that anyone who harmed a hive would have their arm cut off far back in the past. Some trace of that could also be seen among the most elderly, as they never kill bees. In Apellániz (A), it was said that the right arm was cut off anyone who cataba or robbed a hive. In Zuya (A), they said that it was a sin to kill one of those insects.

With respect to the general fact that the beekeeper, despite working with no protection, is not really study, the people surveyed in Ribera Alta (A) said that was because the bees know their owner and do not attack him/her. In Apodaca (A), the traditional beekeeper hardly ever uses the mask in his/her apiary as the bees know him/her well; it was only used when collecting the honey.

As regards the stings by those insects, the réspere or sting is removed if it is stuck in the skin. In the past in Carranza, once the sting had been removed, clay or wet mud was applied to the affected area to relieve the pain and stop it from swelling. After a while, it would be washed off and oil applied. It was also recommended to rub the sting with three different leaves or herbs; it did not matter which they were, the only thing was they had to be different. Blowing smoke on it also relieved the sting. The custom of applying ammoniac to the skin has become more popular in recent years.