Hollow Log Beekeeping Traditions

Hollow Log Beekeeping Traditions

Honeybees preceded humans on earth by millions of years. The dark forest bee spread over the Urals and the Cis-Ural region in the early postglacial times. Primeval humans who inhabited forests used to gather and eat the honey and honeycombs of wild bees. They searched for bee nests in tree hollows and extracted the discovered honey. The first records of wild honey hunters can be found in cave drawings that date back to over a dozen thousand years ago. Honey hunting images were discovered in Spain, the Southern Urals, Egypt, India, Italy and Germany. Early humans used to hunt for honey everywhere. It was staple food for hunters and gatherers of the Stone Age.

With the arrival of iron, people learned to make tools and constructed artificial hollows for bee nestling, so-called hollow logs. It marked the evolution of a honey hunter to a log beekeeper. Having chosen an appropriate tree, a log beekeeper would carve it with his family mark. The log making craft, the choice of a particular forest area and of a bee nestling tree required a lot of skill that was handed down from one generation to another. The chosen tree was often left to grow for a few years. Sometimes it was the original beekeeper’s son who fixed a hollow log on the tree chosen by his father.

Log hives are hollowed out in tree trunks about four to sixteen meters above the ground. Log hives resemble hollows in the trunk about one and half meters wide. There is a small west-facing bee entrance and a long window sealed with a wooden lid. The window is used to look after the log hive and extract honey. A ready log hive is stuffed with grass and left for a year or two. Afterwards, it is inhabited by wild bee colonies during swarming. A piece of honeycomb is fixed on the ceiling of the hive to attract new bees which start attaching new combs to it.

Log beekeepers used to spend a lot of time in the forest, could easily find their way around and knew all plants and animals. A tour through hives sometimes took a few days and involved staying overnight in the woods. This lifestyle required the beekeeper to be strong, healthy, stoic, hardy and quick. Log hive trees grew far from one another. Trekking the woods on foot or on horseback, the log beekeeper carried his tools: a kiram, a leather belt for climbing up a tree; a lyange, a wooden step to stand on a tree; a serpe, a thin rope; an axe, a smoker and a wooden vessel for honey. The entire log beekeeping equipment was discovered at the Birsk burial site in the Urals. The archaeological excavations were estimated to be over fifteen hundred thousand years old. Interestingly, log beekeeping tools have barely changed their form nowadays.

Log beekeepers would tend to their trees and remove fallen off branches to avoid fire. They supplied the most valuable forest product, log honey, and thus were always highly respected. Log beekeepers were free people at all times and in different places. They were neither slaves nor serfs. They formed a cast of log beekeepers, free-willed people living on the edge of the civilization and the woods and keeping ancient traditions. Log beekeepers handed down their hundred-year knowledge of the forest and bees to your generations. There appeared log beekeeping dynasties. A log hive tree was considered an immovable property and was never infringed. Log hive trees were a sign of wealth. The log beekeeper carved a personal mark on a tree, a tamga, to secure his property rights.

A tamga is an ancient Turkic word that means a brand, a seal, a personal or family mark. For Turkic people, the tamga was normally the emblem of a particular tribe or clan. Great Mongolian khans used to have their tamgas stamped on coins. Craftsmen and artisans used the tamga as their brand. The graphic representation of the tamga is the modified runic script of Asian Turkic people.

The distribution of the tamga was due to the Tatar-Mongolian expansion. The tamga was used to receive servage money. Gradually, the tamga evolved into a distinguishing mark and later a coat of arms. The Ukrainian coat of arms, for instance, is a family tanga of Kievan dukes.

The Russian word “tamgit” (to seal with a tamga) means to stamp or to label. The Russian customs, “tamozhnya”, is a place where a duty is levied and a stamp (a tamga) is affixed on goods crossing the border.

Turkic people respected the tamga as it was their family mark and a link to their ancestors handed down from a father to a son. The Nogais have a saying, “Food is not worth losing your tamga for”, which implies losing your dignity.

Bashkir log beekeepers carved the tamga in chosen log trees. The tamga was essential for log beekeepers. It was carved on tools, embroidered on clothes, and sealed on kitchen utensils. The tamga was often used instead of a signature or a stamp. Further generations would modify or include a new element into their ancestors’ tamga.

Log beekeepers in Russia had a similar seal, an ensign. It was carved in a tree and had a specific name, for example, “the ensign of four thresholds” or “the ensign of a belted purse”. The ensign had a legal power. Therefore, anyone who attempted to take possession of someone’s log hive tree by cutting off the ensign and carving his own anew would have to pay a fine of twelve coins.

The tamga was also in use with the Voguls, Maris, Komis and other peoples of the Urals and the Volga region, as well as in the Far North.

Log beekeepers explored new lands in their search for melliferous areas. Many settlements still bear names derived from the words “log hive” and “bees”. Log beekeepers defended their motherland in wartimes, forming troops distinguished by their high morale.

The Russian land acquired a worldwide reputation for honey and beeswax. Log beekeeping was flourishing due to massive forests full of melliferous plants, poor agriculture and low density of population. Log hive areas were spread over the entire territory of ancient Russia. Foreigners used to get astounded by immense bee colonies, abundant honey and beeswax. It was Herodotus who already mentioned the inconceivable number of bee swarms in the lands behind the Danube. Log beekeeping was one of the most important industries. Some records show that the honey yield reached forty-eight million kilograms per annum in the sixteenth century. The popularity of log beekeeping is still coined in various Slavic and Bashkir last names.

The height of log beekeeping lasted till the late eighteenth century. Technical progress triggered industrial development. Forests were cut down to satisfy the needs of wood-chemical manufacturing. Hives were moved to apiaries that required less time to tend to. The arrival of sugar and wine resulted in a decrease in log honey consumption. Lamp oil ousted candles and diminished the importance of beeswax. Log beekeeping almost vanished by the twentieth century and is only practiced in a few places in the world. Log honey is unique in its properties, rare and costly.

The greatest value of log honey is its maturity. Honey maturing is a long process that starts the moment a bee places some nectar into a comb cell. Honey is left to ripen and thicken, while abundant moisture evaporates. Log hives are the best for producing mature honey, because honey is only extracted once in early autumn. Traditional hive honey is extracted a few times in summer.

Log honey is always mixed with beeswax and bee bread. Log hives have no internal frames. Bees build honeycombs of weird shapes and forms, thus making it impossible to extract honey conventionally by centrifugal force.

Another advantage of hollow log beekeeping is more natural conditions for bee colonies in a log hive. The location on an altitude makes the air inside a log hive drier than on the ground. Log hives are characterized by more stable temperatures. Log bees fly out earlier than bees kept in traditional hives. Forest bees work an hour and a half longer than hive bees. They fly out when the temperature is cooler and even when it rains.

Last but not least, log honey is an all-natural product. Log hives are kept deep in the woods and are safe from industrial pollution.