Terms in Indo-European languages for some concepts related to honey, bees and hives
Eva Crane (image courtesy Bucks Free Press, 1990)
Note that this publication is available online only. There is no printed edition available.
The School of Celtic Studies is most grateful to Penelope Walker, a long-time colleague and friend of the late Dr Eva Crane OBE, for sending us this article on bee-related terminology from Dr Crane’s unpublished papers, and allowing it to be made available on the School’s website.
Ethel Eva Crane (née Widdowson) was a remarkable scientist and scholar who devoted her life to the study of everything connected with the honeybee. She was born in 1912, and read Mathematics and then Physics at King’s College London. She was appointed Lecturer in Physics at the University of Hull in 1936, was awarded a PhD in Nuclear Physics from London University (external candidate) in 1938, and became a Lecturer in Physics at the University of Sheffield in 1940. She started beekeeping in 1941 to help with the war effort, and was given more bees as a wedding present when she married James Crane in 1942. She developed a keen interest in apiculture, and rapidly gained expertise in this field. In 1949 she founded the Bee Research Association, which was renamed the International Bee Research Association in 1976. Her output was prodigious, and included A Dictionary of Beekeeping Terms, 12 volumes (ed. 1951–2003), Honey: A Comprehensive Survey (ed. 1975), Apiculture in Tropical Climates (ed. 1976), A Book of Honey (1980), The Archaeology of Beekeeping (1983), World Perspectives in Apiculture (1985), Bees and Beekeeping: Science, Practice and World Resources (1990), and The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (1999). In addition to her books, she published over three hundred articles on beekeeping, including (with Penelope Walker) ‘Irish beekeeping in the past’, Ulster Folklife 44 : 45–59 (1998), and ‘Early beekeeping in Ireland’, Bee World 86 (2): 49 (2005).
Dr Crane was an intrepid traveller, and between 1949 and 2000 visited at least sixty countries to learn more about beekeeping and honey hunting techniques in all sorts of environments. Her connection with the School of Celtic Studies began when Thomas Charles-Edwards and I undertook an edition of Bechbretha, an Old Irish law-text on beekeeping, dating from about the seventh century AD. We had a query on the terminology for swarms in the Celtic languages, which we referred to the letters page of the magazine Country Life. We received a reply from Dr Crane, and she subsequently read a draft of our section on ‘Beekeeping in Early Ireland’ (pp. 38–49 of our 1983 edition) and made many useful suggestions and corrections. We remained in touch, and on one happy occasion she paid a visit to the School of Celtic Studies. She died on 6 September 2007. It is an honour to publish her article on ‘Terms in Indo-European languages for some concepts related to honey, bees and hives’ on our website.
30 January 2009
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The history of words used in different parts of the world for bees, swarms, honey and beeswax can throw some light on ways in which human communities regarded them in early times. Also, the origin of some of the terms relatedt to the management of bees by man — and of terms for hive — can provide clues to the history of the domestication of honey bees. More general aspects of this history have been dealt with elsewhere (Crane, 1999).
Indo-European languages form the world’s largest single linguistic family. They are spoken in almost the whole of Europe and the Indian subcontinent, and also in the New World by descendants of many Europeans who settled there since 1500. European languages outside this family include Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian in the Finno-Ugrian group, and also Basque.
The Indo-European languages now in use are considered to be descended from a common parent language which was spoken — probably in part of eastern Europe — during some period between 3000 and 2000 BC. This language has not survived, but some of its words and word-roots have been reconstructed.
Tables 1 and 2 list commonly used concepts relating to bee products, bees and hives in twenty-four Indo-European languages and also in Hungarian and Finnish. English terms stock, hive and colony were discussed in Bee World many years ago (Betts, 1938).
Words for honey and mead
In all current Indo-European languages except the Germanic group, words for honey (Table 1) are based on one of only two roots (*médhu and *meli-t), which indicates that honey probably had a name very early in the development of these languages. In the eastern Indo-European group, descendants of the root *médhu are also used for mead (e.g. Russian mjod), so most of the honey produced in Eastern Europe was probably fermented to make mead. Some of the properties attributed to honey in early times, such as bestowing eloquence, may well have been those of mead instead.
In Romance languages and some others, derivatives of *médhu are now used only for mead, and derivatives of *meli-t for honey; for instance in modern Irish, mead is miodh and honey is mil. Germanic languages took a different path. Apart from the Gothic form miliþ (from *meli-t) the Germanic languages used a new word for honey, something like *hunaga; it appears to be based on an Indo-European root *kenəkó which means golden-yellow. In today’s Germanic languages *hunaga is the basis of the word for honey, but the word for mead is still based on *médhu. Anglo-Saxon used hunig for honey; the 1971 Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites examples from about AD 825 and 891. A form of *médhu for honey was borrowed by some languages outside the Indo-European family, for instance méz in Hungarian.
Words for beeswax and comb
Words for (bees)wax and honey comb in the different languages are included in Table 1.
Two Indo-European roots were connected with wax. One was *weg-, meaning to weave or plait, to net or snare, and in early languages it was used for bees’ comb rather than for beeswax. People probably thought that bees constructed comb in a way comparable to their own weaving or plaiting. In Old High German, comb built by bees — including honeycomb — was wabo, and in modern German it is Wabe; both words are cognate with web and weave. Old High German wahs gave German Wachs, and Old English weax gave English wax.
For beeswax, the other Indo-European root *kār- gave classical Greek kerós and Latin cera, used also in Romance languages based on Latin (e.g. French cire) and in Celtic languages (Irish céir). For comb, instead of cēra Latin used favus, a word whose origin is obscure (Le Sage, 1975); Spanish has panal from Latin panis, bread, and French has rayon which is not related to rayon de soleil (ray of sunshine) but was taken from a Frankish word reconstructed as *hrata which also gave Dutch raat for comb.
The English term honeycomb was hunigcamb in Old English, and hony combe in Middle English around 1300. The word comb might have been used because the arrangement of parallel wax combs built by bees suggested the teeth of a hair comb, or because a ridge could also be called a comb, as cock’s comb (OED).
Words for bee and drone
Table 2 gives words for bee and drone. Nowadays bee has several meanings: any species of bee, honey bee(s) in general, or worker honey bee(s) which form the great majority of the population of a nest or hive. In early times the term usually referred to honey bees, and Le Sage (1974) identified three characteristics of honey bees on which different types of word for them were based. The bees make honey, and Sanskrit mádhu gave the compounds madhulih, (honey)-licker, and also madhupá, honey-drinker, which are in Table 2. Bees also produce a buzzing sound, and onomatopoeic words such as German Biene and English bee are descended from the Indo-European root *bhei-. Another old German word for bee is Imme, which came from imbi (swarm); according to Schier (1939) its use was more or less confined to the north coastal belt of Germany and the extreme south-west. Imker was used for beekeeper, and Imkerei for beekeeping. Goidelic Celtic (Scottish Gaelic and Irish) have beach. Slavonic, which is included in Table 2, has pčelá in Russian, and other words that are similar. Finally, a (worker) bee can sting, and in Brythonic Celtic — Welsh, Cornish and Breton — bee is gwenynen, gwenenen and gwenanen, respectively. The nearest English word cognate with this is wen, originally a bump on the flesh following an injury (Pokorny, 1959, p. 1108).
The English term honie bee was used at least as early as 1566 (OED). No general agreement has been reached as to the origin of the word apis (Le Sage, 1974) which is now equated with honey bee. It may be a latinized version of Hapi, the name of the sacred bull of Ancient Egypt, closely linked with the god Osiris. Ransome (1921, 1923, 1937) suggested that the name may have been transferred to the bee because of an ancient belief that bees were generated from a dead bull.
Gilliéron (1918) published a 300-page genealogy of words used to designate the honey bee in French-speaking parts of Europe, and found three main groups. Apis was retained in peripheral areas to the east (Switzerland), north (Artois), north-west (Guernsey) and south-west (Médoc), suggesting that apis was used earlier throughout the area covered by these regions. The second group includes abeille and similar words; abeille was introduced in the south and south-east, but was not recognized in literary language until the 1500s. Words of the third group occur in all dialects north of the Loire: mouche, mouche essaim, mouche à miel, etc.
From classical Greek times the drone was treated as a separate creature from the (worker) bee, and in many languages its name emphasizes some notable feature of it, the chief being its loud buzz; the fact that the drone is a male was not established until 1609 (by Charles Butler in England). Le Sage (1974) discussed the complexities in possible derivations of words for drone in different languages. Most Celtic names are related to the concept of devourer, pillager or thief.
Words for swarm
Ancient peoples may have known little about the colony inside a cavity or hive, but they could see and recognize a swarm, and Table 2 includes terms for swarm in different languages. According to Le Sage (1974), Classical Greek used hesmós for a swarm (only), and smênos for a swarm or a hive (i.e., colony) of bees; both words imply ‘togetherness’. Hesmós was often preceded by the prefix aph- or ex-, which can mean [sending] away from or out of. Latin examen for swarm means a driving out, like Greek éxesmos, and from it are derived nearly all words in Latin-based languages: French essaim, Spanish enjambre, Italian sciame and so on. Anglo-Saxon glossaries dating from about 725 and 1300 translated Latin examen as suearm and swearm, respectively. The Indo-European root *embhi (cf. *enebh-, *embh- ‘mist or cloud’) may have given Old High German imbi for swarm. The OED suggests some alternative derivations.
In England up to the 1600s and later, a swarm was used to populate an empty hive, and the hived swarm was often also referred to as a swarm, at least until the end of the summer. Rusden (1679) said ‘A swarm in May, or June, is called a Stock at Michaelmas [29 September]’. The word stock is discussed below.
A smaller secondary swarm (afterswarm) often left a hive about a week after the (prime) swarm; it consisted of a smaller number of workers and one of several newly reared virgin queens. Many languages had a separate word for this swarm. A usual English word was cast; French had rejeton and Spanish jabardo. Even smaller after-swarms might fly out later, and in some regions they also had individual names, some of which (colt, filly, etc.) indicate a diminutive. Other names include ‘bull-swarm’ in Welsh (tarwhaid), Breton (tarvhet) and Irish (tarbsaithe).
The term colony originated as a Greek word for an independent city founded by human emigrants. In the late 1600s and 1700s it had a specific meaning in beekeeping: one of the boxes of a tiered hive. Gedde’s 1675 book referred to bee houses and colonies, and Thorley’s in 1744 to the ordering of bees in colonies and in common hives. (A ‘common hive’ had only one compartment – like a skep or log hive.) Since 1872 the word colony has had another, more general, meaning: ‘an aggregate of individual animals that form a physiologically connected structure’ (OED, 1971). A colony of social bees or other social insects includes a reproductive female (queen), non-reproductive females (workers), and also males during the reproductive season.
Words for hive
Terms considered so far relate to social bees nesting wild or in a man-made hive. Terms for the hive which houses a colony of bees did not arise until hive beekeeping existed. They vary considerably, and there are uncertainties about some of their derivations, but many reflect the shape or material of the hive.
Brinkmann (1938) published an extensive discussion of terms relating to hive in Latin-based languages, and Schier (1939) did so for German terms. Languages descended from old Norse use bikupe or a similar word for a bee hive (cf. hen-coop for hens). Anglo-Saxon hyf gave English hyve or hive. A romance about Richard Coeur de Lion written around 1325 had the lines: ‘And commanded his men, belyve, To bring up many a bee-hyve’ (OED). In 1494 a certain Katherine was to have free access ‘to hir hyve skeppys’. Both hive and kupa are derived from an Indo-European root *keup-. This is similar in meaning to Latin alvus (belly) from which Latin has alveus, cavity, trough or hive, and alvearium (bellying vessel), one meaning of which is a cavity or hollow structure of some kind.
The initial sk- in English skep shows that the word has an Old Norse origin (like sky, skin, skirt). In Old English it was sceppe, which meant a specific measure of grain in the 1000s, a basket in the 1200s, and skep as a hive for bees in the 1400s. Ruskin or rusky, a Scottish word for skep, was used earlier for a basket made of bark and twigs (OED). It is from Scots Gaelic rúsgan, cognate with the Irish word for bark, rúsc.
A set of 107 English inventories (Walker & Crane, 2001) from the 1500s to 1700s includes entries for hives of bees under the following designations:
The word skep occurred rarely during the 1400s–1700s when a skep was the usual hive in England, but it was used during the 1800s and 1900s to distinguish the older straw hives from more recent wooden ones. In areas where the word was still in use in 1974, earlier records seem to use stock or stall, perhaps because a skep could be any sort of basket or hamper.
One early meaning of stock was tree trunk or stump, and in German Bienenstock is used for a hive made from an upright hollow log. Stock (singular) was also a generic term in English for all the animals held by a farmer, as in livestock, but a number of inventory entries use the plural stocks for occupied bee hives, as referred to above. So the tree-trunk origin of the word seems the more likely. There is, however, little evidence that tree trunks (logs) were widely used for hives in England, as they were in parts of continental Europe. An English manuscript from 1568 refers to the allotment of bees after ‘Wilson and a servant’ had found a swarm: ‘The servant to have the first swarm, Wilson the next, and ‘the stock remayne to the house’. Here, the stock was the colony (in its hive) after swarms had left.
The words hive and stock (and more recently colony) have been variously used, and several references listed below discuss their meanings in the early 1900s.
French ruche for hive, from Late Latin rusca, is known from the 900s; it is thought to be of Gaulish origin and to have designated the bark of a tree. Legros (1969) published an extensive discussion of French names for hive in different regions of Roman Gaul (France, south Belgium, Catalonia and part of Switzerland), especially in relation to their material and construction. Her book includes six maps, one of which shows localities where some sixty different names were found. Ruche occurred mainly north of the Loire, with panier (basket) to the east and south of Paris. Many words such as bourgnon were used, coming from borna (cavity), and a number of them are related to a cavity in a tree trunk. They have been traced across a belt from the Atlantic coast south of the Loire to the Mediterranean coast in Languedoc.
Words for the place where hives were kept
The English word apiary, for a place where bees are kept, came — rather late — from Latin apiarium, used for instance by Columella (De re rustica, IX.5.1). In the 1650s John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum (Smith, 1965) used the word, and in 1671 the Royal Society published John Beal’s paper ‘An apiary or Discipline of bees …’. John Worlidge called his 1676 book (written under the pseudonym J. W., Gent) Apiarium or A discussion of the government and ordering of bees. In the 1703 Oxford English Dictionary Moundrell wrote of ‘a smell of honey and wax as strong as if one had been in an Apiary’. Brinkmann (1938) discussed the terms used for apiary in Latin-based languages.
In the USA, where the word yard was used for garden, hives were (and are) kept in a bee yard. French had rucher from ruchu, German Bienenstand, and Spanish colmenar from colmena (hive). Other terms for apiary reflect the type of structure used: German Bienenhaus, English bee shelter.
English words for beekeeping and beekeeper
These words seem to have come into use relatively late, and perhaps the activity and the person were previously too unimportant to warrant specific names. The earliest books on beekeeping used other terms for it:
- ordering of bees (Butler, 1609; Hill, 1568; Southerne, 1593) husbandry of bees (Lawson, 1618)
- management of bees (Huish, 1815; Nutt, 1832; Wildman, 1768).
When a person who looked after bees was first given a name he might be a bee-master, as in a 1780 book by Keys. Other terms used before 1800 were beekeeper (e.g. Bromwich, 1783) and apiarian (e.g. Isaac, 1799). John Milton published The London apiarian guide for bee-keepers in 1823. Bone (1967) suggested that Cotton’s 1837 Letter to cottagers from a conservative beekeeper was instrumental in extending the use of the term beekeeper, and that Cotton may have thought it better suited to the humble audience he addressed in his letter. The apiarian’s guide by Payne was published in 1833, but in 1842 and later editions it was The beekeeper’s guide. (In England the word scientist was first used in 1840, for a ‘cultivator of science in general’, and artist in the common present sense around 1849.)
In the USA, the subtitle of Miner’s 1851 book referred to ‘scientific apiarians’, although that of his 1849 book The American bee keeper’s manual did not. The 1853 book, Langstroth on the hive and the honey bee, had the subtitle A bee keeper’s manual, and Kidder’s guide to apiarian science (1858) became Secrets of bee-keeping in 1859. Harbison’s The beekeeper’s directory (1861) was on ‘the science and practice of bee culture’.
The word apiarist, used in England by Kirby and Spence (1815), became more common in North America than in Britain. During the 1900s, official State Apiarists and Provincial Apiarists were appointed throughout the USA and Canada, respectively.
After movable-frame hives were introduced, there seems to have been a shift from apiarist to beekeeper, and in some countries apiculture came to imply scientific beekeeping. In 1864 the Saturday Review in England referred to beekeeping as ‘what we perceive it is high-polite to call apiculture’, and in 1883 the New York Tribune in USA reported that ‘comb foundation is one of the great aids to apiculture’. Apidologie in French and German, and apidology or apiology occasionally in English, meant the scientific study of bees (as geology, physiology, etc.). In 1882 R. W. Emerson in the USA referred to Charles Butler as an apiologist.
French terms form a simple set: apiculture and apicole for beekeeping (noun and adjective), and apiculteur for beekeeper. German uses the prefix Bienen, adding –zucht for beekeeping and –züchter for beekeeper. Currently, scholarly English has apiculture as a noun and apicultural as an adjective, but can construct only the clumsy apiculturalist for beekeeper.
. [Editorial note: The Dictionary of the Irish Language, based mainly on Old and Middle Irish Material (Royal Irish Academy, Dublin 1913–76) gives the primary meaning of rúsc as ‘bark’, with the secondary meaning ‘receptacle made from bark’. No instances of the diminutive rúscán are cited, though the form is attested in Modern Irish, e.g. Dinneen, Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla: an Irish-English Dictionary, and Ó Dónaill, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. A recently discovered fragment of Middle Irish legal commentary relating to bee-keeping contains the form rúscán. This commentary has been included in the 2008 reprint of Bechbretha: an Old Irish law-tract on bee-keeping (Early Irish Law Series vol. 1) p. 191, Appendix 6a. The most likely meaning of rúscán in this commentary seems to be ‘bark receptable’, but as the whole passage is obscure it is also possible that it means ‘beehive’.]
. In 1625 the title Apiarium was chosen for a broadsheet in Italian containing ‘an accurate delineation of the bee’ (Crane, 1999).
Based on Le Sage (1974, 1975), Crane (1951–1988).
|cera (de abejas)||panal|
|Old Irish||mil||mid||céir||críathar melo|
|Modern Irish||mil||miodh||céir||cíor mheala|
|Scots Gaelic||mil||leann meala||céir||cìr-mheala|
Based on Le Sage (1974, 1975), Crane (1951–1988).
|Classical Greek||mélissa||kêphên, thrônax||smênos, hesmós||smênos|
|Old Irish||bech||(?)tarb||saithe||lestar, (ce(i)s, clíab)|
|Modern Irish||beach||ladrann||scuaine||coirceog, corcóg|
|Scots Gaelic||beach, seillean||seillean, dìomhain||sgaoth||beachlann, sgeap|
|Welsh||gwenynen, bygegyr||gwenynen ormes||haid gwenyn, etc.||gwenyn, llestr|
|Cornish||gwenenen||sudronen||hēs gwenen||cowel gwenen|
Beal, J. (1671) An apiary or Discipline of bees … Philosphical Transactions of the Royal Society 6 (71): 2148–2149
Betts, A. D. (1938) ‘Stock’, ‘hive’ and ‘colony’. Bee World 19(5): 51; see also 25(8): 61 (1944)
Bone, D. (1967) A note on the word bee-keeper. Bee Craft 49(11): 164–166
Brinkmann, W. (1938) Bienenstock und Bienenstand in romanischen Ländern (Hamburg: Hanscher Gildenverlag)
Bromwich, B. J.’A. (1783) The experienced beekeeper (London: Dilly)
Butler, C. (1609) The feminine monarchie … (Oxford: printed Joseph Barnes). Facsimile reprints: English Experience No. 81, 1969 (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis); 1985 (Mytholmroyd, UK: Northern Bee Books)[Cotton, W. C.]  A short and simple letter to cottagers from a conservative beekeeper (Oxford: Oxford Apiarian Society)
Crane, E. (1951–1988) Dictionary of beekeeping terms Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 (London: IBRA)
Crane, E. (1999) The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting (London: Duckworth)
Evelyn, J. (c. 1655) see under Smith, D.A.
Gedde, J. (1675) A new discovery of an excellent method of bee-houses and colonies … (London: D. Newman)
Gilliéron, J. (1918) Généalogie des mots qui désignant l’abeille. Reprinted 1975 (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints)
Harbison, J. S. (1861) The bee-keeper’s directory, or The theory and practice of bee culture (San Francisco: H. H. Bancroft & Co.)
Hill, T. (1568) A pleasaunt instruction of the parfit orderinge of bees; treatise annexed to 3rd ed. of The proffitable arte of gardening (London: Thomas Marshe)
Huish, R. (1815) A treatise on the nature, economy, and practical management, of bees; … (London: Baldwin, Cradock, & Joy)
Isaac, J. (1799) The general apiarian … (Exeter: Trewman)
Keys, J. (1780) The practical bee-master (London: author)
Kidder (1858) Kidder’s guide to apiarian science (Burlington, VT: C. B. Nichols)
Kirby, W.; Spence, W. (1815) An introduction to entomology. Vol. 1 (London: Longman Hirst and others)
Langstroth, L. L. (1853) Langstroth on the hive and the honey-bee, a bee keeper’s manual (Northampton, MA: Hopkins, Bridgman & Co.)
Lawson, W. (1618) A new orchard and garden (London: printed by B. Alsop for R. Jackson)
Legros, E. (1969) Sur les types de ruches en Gaule romane et leurs noms (Liège, Belgium: Musée de la Vie Wallonne)
Le Sage, D. E. (1974) Bees in Indo-European languages. Bee World 55: 15–26, 46–52
Le Sage, D. E. (1975) The language of honey. Pp. 426–438 in Crane (1975)
Milton, J. (1823) The London apiarian guide for bee-keepers (London: author)
Miner, T. B. (1849) The American bee keeper’s manual … (New York: C. M. Saxton)
Miner, T. B. (1851) An essay on winter management of bees … (Utica, NY: R. Northway & Co.)
Nutt, T. (1832) Humanity to honey bees … (Wisbech, UK: Leach)
Payne, J. H. (1833) The apiarian’s guide (London: Simpkin & Marshall)
Pokorny, J. (1959) Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Francke Verlag Bern)
Ransome, H. (1921) The origin of some familiar names. Bee World 3(6): 109–110
Ransome, H. (1923) Bees and honey. Derivation and history of the names. Bee World 5(3): 41–42
Ransome, H. (1937) The sacred bee in ancient times and folkore (London: George Allen & Unwin)
Rusden, M. (1679) A further discovery of bees … (London: author)
Schier, B. (1939) Der Bienenstand in Mitteleuropa (Leipzig: S. Hirzel)
Smith, D. A. (ed.) (1965) John Evelyn’s manuscript on bees from Elysium Britannicum. Bee World 46: 48–64, 116–131
Southerne, E. (1593) A treatise concerning the right use and ordering of bees … (London: Thomas Orwin for Thomas Woodcocke)
Thorley, J. (1744) Melisselogia or, The female monarchy … (London: author)
Walker, P.; Crane, E. (2001) English beekeeping from c. 1200 to 1850: evidence from local records. Local Historian 31(1): 3–30
Wildman, T. (1768) A treatise on the management of bees (London: Cadell for the author)
Worlidge, J. (1676) Apiarium, or, A discourse on the government and ordering of bees (London: Thos. Dring)