Honeybees Perform A “great robbery to the farmer” Says The Newbury Weekly News

This is a piece I stumbled on in the British Bee Journal.  Mr Woodley responds to a misinformed journalist/correspondent at the Newbury Weekly News.  I would be interested to know from my readership, whether the standard and accuracy of journalism at the Newbury Weekly News has improved since 1890?

Mr. William Woodley forwards some cuttings from a local newspaper referring to a correspondence in which he has taken part.  The paper in question appears to possess a reporter or correspondent whose duties include writing an agricultural report for the district, and as this gentleman falls foul of bee-keeping in a very decided fashion, while apparently possessing a very limited knowledge of what he is talking about, our correspondent, Mr. Woodley, takes up the cudgels on behalf of the bee.

In the ‘report’ for June 2nd, 1890, occurs this passage: —

‘We see a great deal in the papers about bee-keeping; but persons forget, or do not know, that it is a great robbery to the farmer, for honey is one of the best ingredients in the hay, and many use sugar when carting, and so supply what has taken away.’

To this Mr. Woodley replies: —

To the Editor of the ‘Newbury Weekly New’

Sir, — Your writer of agricultural notes has got out of his depth, re Bee-keepers and Farmers, if our leading savants know anything of the subject.  The scientists contend that the nectar is formed in the plant to attract the insect to fulfil the act of fertilisation by carrying grains of pollen from flower to flower, and that after the flower has been visited, that flower does not put forth more nectar, but goes on forming seed.  If, however, the flower is not visited by the bee, and the act of fertilisation is not accomplished, the plant still continues to form nectar to attract the insect, which dries up and is scattered by the winds, practically ‘wasted on the desert air.’  Our colony of New Zealand had to import red clover seed, as they had no insect with tongue long and tapering enough to reach the honey or nectar contained in the flower’s, consequently could not grow seed in that country.  A noted London bee-keeper and a Scotch bee-keeper together introduced the bumble-bee, Bumbni terrestus, by packing same in moss and sending them over in the refrigerating compartment of the steamship John Elder a few years back.  Now they are acclimatised, our Antipodean friends and brothers can by their aid grow their own red clover-seed.  I would commend to your writer the works of Darwin, Cheshire, Cook, &c., which will soon dispel his erroneous ideas.  He knows quite well that no farmer ever has to put sugar to his hay, unless the goodness is washed out by continued rain; then why libel the farmer’s best friend, Apis mellifica? — I am, sir, yours faithfully, W.Woodley, World’s End, June, 1890.

A second letter of Mr. Woodley reads as follows:—

Sir, — Your writer of agricultural notes in last issue admits, though negatively, the beneficial activity of bees visiting the two fields of turnip seed.  The fault of hybridising the seed does not rest with the fertilising agent, i.e., the insect, but in the seed-grower in allowing two fields of the same species of plant to seed near each other.  The fact that the flowers are fertilised by pollen brought by the bees from the adjoining field, establishes the great importance of the bee in the economy of nature.  As regards the writer’s contention that the hay is so much the poorer in quality, because the bees have gathered nectar from the flowers while in bloom, I trust he will read up what our scientists say on the subject; but it may interest him to know that the beautiful sweet early hay now in stack is the produce of the fields visited by the busy bees to cull the nectar, and from which most of the honey this season has been gathered; that the musty, washed, tasteless hay that requires the sugar is the hay from which the bees gathered little or no honey, and, according to your writer, contains all the honey produced by the plant.  Bee-keepers will acknowledge the soft impeachment that they do not keep bees especially or solely to fertilise the farmers’ seeds, any more than the farmer sows fields of nectar – bearing plants for the benefit of the bee-keeper.  We are each dependent on the other.  It may interest agriculturists to know that of trifolium proetense 100 flower heads on plants protected by gauze did not produce one single seed, whilst 100 plants growing outside, which were visited by bees, yielded 2720 seeds.  In trifolium repens (Dutch clover) twenty heads unprotected yielded 2290 seeds, while twenty protected heads of bloom had ‘only a single aborted seed.’  The visits of the bee are equally beneficial to the fruit-grower as to the farmer.  We should look in vain for the strawberry, the raspberry, the apple, the gooseberries, and other fruits, if we had no bees to fertilise the blossoms, so that if they do extract the nectar of which they make honey, they give something in return of equal, if not greater value, and instead of the farmer being a loser, I maintain he is the gainer.  If the weather is cold and wet the busy bees cannot visit the flowers, and the consequence is that the farmer gets a poor yield of seed, be it of beans, peas, vetches, or the smaller kinds of farm seeds.

But the sting of ‘Agriculturist’s’ remarks is, like the bee’s, in its tail.  It has been reserved in some inscrutable way for the writer to make the astounding assertion that bee-keepers are the receivers of stolen property.  Think of the gentle ‘Huber,’ of Father Langstroth, and the army of bee-keepers amongst our nobility and clergy being dubbed receivers of stolen goods!  Let the mind revert to the inspired writings, how often the promised land was alluded to as a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey; how the patriarch of old said to his sons, ‘Take a little honey as a present to the house of Pharaoh.’  Fancy sending stolen goods as a present to a king!  Then, from the ‘long ago,’ come down to the Jubilee of the Royal Show at Windsor last year, when a present of honey was made to the Queen of England.  There, at our very doors, was giving and receiving stolen goods, if the writer of ‘Agricultural Notes’ is right in dubbing the busy bees as ‘busy little thieves’ and their owners receivers of their nefarious avocation.  — W. Woodley, Worlds End, July 5th, 1890.

[Published in the British Bee Journal 13 November 1890, page 551]

Yet their was a third letter but Mr Woodley describes this in a proceeding  Notes By The Way [NBTW] on 4 December 1890:-

I thank Mr. Grimshaw for his letter (462), ‘Are Bees Thieves?’  It strengthens one’s hands in dealing with erroneous statements.  I sent a long third letter to our local paper, which the  Editor summarised, in which I gave several extracts from the writings of scientists on the subject of pollination and insect fertilisation of  flowers and plants, closing with the assertion that a bottle of honey was simply a bottle of  sunshine. [NBTW 4 December 1890].


3 thoughts on “Honeybees Perform A “great robbery to the farmer” Says The Newbury Weekly News

  1. I’m a bit confused by some of the mentions of sugar being put on the hay. Why did farmers do this?

    1. I have done a little bit of research into hay-making and can see no mention of adding sugar. One article mentioned that one reason for losses in hay-making was fermentation. I would suppose adding sugar would increase the risk of fermentation.
      Mr Grimshaw commented to Mr Woodley’s letter on 27 November 1890. Grimshaw writes:-
      “The picture of the highly conscientious farmer sweetening up his hay with molasses as he loads it or stacks it, may be one very true to nature; but to say he does it to make up to his cattle the loss they sustain by having the nectar of his plants stolen by the bees, is about as reasonable as saying he gives salt to his animals in order to compensate them for the salts washed out of the soil by heavy rains. It is totally untrue in both cases.”
      It is likely the reporter from the Newbury Weekly News was completely clueless about agricultural matters and mistook the use of a preserving hay like Anhydrous ammonia (urea in salt form) for sugar. The Newbury Weekly News is still in existence and I am sure its readership can vouch for the fact that the paper has proudly served the community with clueless-journalism for well over 100 years.

      1. Ha! Glad to hear the Newbury’s standards of journalism have remained consistent.

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