One of the projects I’ve been planning for quite some time now is to start keeping bees. We knew when we were house hunting almost 2 years ago that we wanted to keep bees eventually, and as with anything else, I immediately started translating that into a medieval context as well as a modern one. Lots of people have seen pictures of medieval beehives – the bumpy dome shaped woven straw bee skeps – and while they’re apparently illegal to use if you’re planning to sell your honey, I have no intention of selling honey anyways – and my district only allows 2 colonies of bees in the first place. My husband was out of work last year so we weren’t able to get hives set up last spring, but this year it will be a definite possibility. I happen to have a coworker who keeps bees on a commercial basis and is happy to sell me a couple of colonies later this spring, so I’m working on learning all I can about the whole beekeeping process right now and pricing out hives.
Anyone who has been around the SCA for any length of time has at least heard of mead, also known as honey wine. I almost never drink myself, as I have a condition called alcohol flush syndrome, which is where I’m missing an enzyme from my digestive system that allows me to process alcohol properly. Drinking won’t kill me, it’s just really really uncomfortable, and since I don’t really like the taste of much alcohol anyways, and I don’t see the point of spending money on a beverage that is pricey and I’m just going to pee it out later, I rarely bother. That said, I do enjoy a sip of mead from time to time, and I quite enjoy the process of brewing. So naturally this led me to start researching beekeeping in the viking period.
Well… a preliminary search is leading me to the result that there were NO bees in Iceland during the viking period. I’m not 100% convinced of this quite yet, for a couple of reasons: a) yes, there are other forms of pollination – other flying insects, wind, etc. – but bees are a MAJOR source of pollination all over the earth and b) honey was likely the only source of sweetening available to people at that time. So this definitely requires much more research. In the meantime… they absolutely DID have bees in the other Viking countries, and since my persona lives in the very early 900s, when Iceland was still being settled and there were frequent trips back and forth between Iceland and Norway, and part of her story is trips back to Norway to visit family, it’s entirely plausible that she has learned to keep bees while in Norway. I am not entirely sure they would have attempted to bring bees to Iceland with them on the Viking ships, since the travel time between Norway and Iceland could vary wildly, and could take as long as an entire summer depending on sailing conditions. They also would have stopped in other ports on the way to and fro – Dublin being one of them. And beekeeping was common in Ireland as well. The trip could be done in as little as 3 to 5 days if they had favourable conditions, and bees can be kept in the hive for that long easily – they overwinter where I live and spend all winter in the hive and live off of their own honey, so they could have been brought to Iceland. And honestly, that’s good enough justification for me.
Bee photo by Markus Trienke, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.