Take on Nature: Brehon law and the bumble bee

A bumble bee about to land on a flower
A bumble bee about to land on a flower A bumble bee about to land on a flower

RECENT warm Mediterranean breezes provided a welcome nudge for our reluctant spring. Slow-to-awaken leaves unfurled from swollen buds and the warm air encouraged many insects out on the wing.

One in particular caught my eye last week in the grounds of our local Church of St Davog. A garden bumble bee (Bombus hortorum, I think), which was foraging on blackthorn flowers set me thinking about the generations of lore and human interaction with the bee and the ancient ‘Bechbretha’, the Irish laws governing bees enacted during the time of our Brehon laws.

Prior to English rule, Ireland had its own indigenous system of law dating from Celtic times, which survived until the 17th century when it was finally supplanted by the English common law. This native system of law, known as the Brehon law, developed from customs which had been passed on orally from one generation to the next.

In the seventh century AD the laws were written down for the first time. Brehon law was administered by Brehons, or ‘brithem’ derived from the Irish ‘breitheamh’ meaning judge, the successors to Celtic druids.

In many respects Brehon law was quite progressive, a system well ahead of its time. It recognised equal rights between the genders and showed concern for the environment. In criminal law, offences and penalties were defined in great detail. Restitution rather than punishment was prescribed for wrongdoing.

Animals were used as currency with fixed values set down in law and given in payment for goods and services and for settling fines. The Brehons didn’t seem to have any trouble getting their decisions accepted and the absence of either a court system or a police force suggests that people had strong respect for the law.

The first encroachment on Brehon law came in 1155, when Pope Adrian IV issued the Bull ‘Laudabiliter‘ (a Papal letter) endorsing King Henry II’s plan to conquer Ireland.

The ancient Brehon Law on bees stated that any bumble bee – ‘bumbóg’ in Irish – taking nectar from plants on a neighbour’s land could be accused of grazing trespass in the same way a cow or sheep would be if they strayed on to neighbouring land.

This law was observed by allowing a beekeeper three years of freedom during which time his bees were allowed free reign but on the fourth year the first swarm to issue from the hive had to be given to the neighbour as payment. From all accounts this seemed to work.

Another law existed for the occurrence of bee stings. As long the person stung had not retaliated by killing the bee he or she would be entitled to a meal of honey from the beekeeper. If, however, the person died from the sting then two hives were paid in compensation to their family.

Brehon laws also had penalties for injury or theft offences against domestic animals such as cats, dogs, cattle and horses.

Folklorists tell us how easily bees were offended and how they should be treated as a member of the family. They must be told the news, good or bad and in the event of a family death their hive must be adorned with black ribbon and the funeral food shared with them. A gentle hum of contentment will follow.

This notion of ‘telling the bees’ all news was considered very important and, as they were regarded as messengers of the gods to many in ancient Europe, the custom may be a throwback to the idea of keeping the gods informed of human affairs. We have much to learn from our ancient forebears.