Our bookstore is now open. Shop today →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Nine Lectures on Bees
GA 351

Lecture V

5 December 1923, Dornach

HERR ERBSMEHL remarked that in modern bee-keeping the bee-master is primarily concerned with making a profit: it is the material side that has to be considered. In the “Bienenzeitung” (No. 10) it says: — “Honey is for the most part a luxury, and those who can afford to buy it can well pay a good price for it.” An instance is then given of how a certain Balmesberger who was travelling in Spain, found a number of very healthy children in a bee-keeper's house, and how in answer to the question where he sold his honey, he replied: “Here are my customers.” Here in Middle Europe we want to get as much profit as possible from our honey. An employer of many workmen must see that he gets as much as possible out of them, and the same also applies to the bees.

In the eleventh number, the further question is asked as to whether there was any truth in the matter when people thought that moonlight had an influence on the production of honey or nectar in the flowers.

HERR MÜLLER replied:

1. That Herr Erbsmehl can gather from the Journal that the bee-keeper in question was only working on a small scale, and did not sell his honey. Erbsmehl is evidently not aware what bee-keeping is in our days, and all the things connected with it so that one is obliged to keep accounts. If one does not reckon on making a profit out of it, as with other matters, one might just as well give it up.

Honey would never be available in the necessary quantities if one did not have recourse to artificial methods. One gets perhaps 4–8 pounds of honey and may need rather more than this to keep the stock in good condition. Then a bad year comes and one has not enough to last till April or May. One must help the stock that has sufficient vitality by artificial feeding — with sugar, camomile tea, thyme and a small seasoning of salt.

Then the hours which the bee-keeper spends in working are noted down quite exactly in a modern apiary — how much time the bee-keeper has given to it and so on. Let us say five and a half hours; — (the hour is reckoned at the rate of one franc or one franc, fifty) — thus a pound of honey costs seven francs. Then one must reckon with wear and tear; the combs get used up, and one must replace them. The whole enterprise should surely make a profit. But if the bee-keeper remains at the old standpoint, he does not get along. Herr Erbsmehl may be able to do so, but if I have a large stock, then I must reckon up and say to myself — I have already made a loss if I sell my honey at six francs. The American bee-keepers take exactly this view.

2. I myself, cannot understand that within the next eighty to a hundred years the whole stock of bees will die out. I really cannot understand what Dr. Steiner means by saying that within eighty to a hundred years bee-keeping will be endangered.

3. As to the second point — i.e., what announcing the death of the bee-master to the bees has to do with the bee-master, I have already stated that the greater part of the stock dies after the death of the person in charge. How it came about, I am quite unable to understand.

4. With regard to impure honey in hotels I would like to say that first-class hotels frequently buy American honey. When bees are fed oil this honey, they die — and yet it is produced by bees.

5. As to stinging, sweat is the very worst thing; when you hear shrill buzzing sounds, it is advisable to stand still.

6. As to the question how far can a bee sting affect a man, I know of a case which I should like to mention. A strong man was stung by a bee. He cried out: “Hold me, I have been stung!” He was extremely sensitive to it. He was a man with slight heart trouble. Perhaps Dr. Steiner will tell us to what extent a bee-sting may be really dangerous.

For instance, it is said that three hornet stings will kill a horse. A little while ago I found a hornets' nest in my bee-house. I was taking away the brood. The hornets were such cowards they did not sting me in the dark; perhaps they might have done so out of doors.


Let us go back to the recognition by the bees of their bee-master. I should like to add a few remarks that we may discuss these matters in a reasonable way.

You have formed an opinion that is naturally completely justified if you consider the thing intellectually. But now I should like to tell you this: imagine you have a friend, you came to know him, let us say, in the year 1915. This friend stays here in Europe and you go to America, returning in the year 1925. Your friend, let us suppose, is in Arlesheim. You come to Arlesheim, meet your friend and recognise him. But what has happened meanwhile? I have already described to you how the matter, the substance of the human body is completely changed after seven or eight years. There is then nothing at all left of it; so that your friend when you see hint again after ten years' interval, has nothing of the old, actually nothing, of the substance you saw in him ten years ago. Yet you recognised him! When you look at a man externally, he certainly looks like a coherent mass, but if you were to see him through a big enough magnifying glass, you would then see the blood flowing through his head. Very well, this blood when you see it with the naked eye, or with a small magnifying glass — this blood looks like blood. But if you imagine a gigantic magnifying glass then what flows there as blood no longer has the same appearance; then it seems to consist of little “dots” which are like minute animals. But these little dots do not remain at rest, they vibrate continually. And when you watch this going on it has the strangest likeness to a mass of bees. When sufficiently magnified in his substances, man appears exactly like a mass of bees.

If we thoroughly examine the whole matter it must seem just as incomprehensible that one man should be able to recognise another after ten years (for not a single one of these small vibrating dots is any longer there). His eyes are quite different dots, quite different minute creatures are there, and yet one man recognises another again

So you see, it is entirely unnecessary that it should be due to these minute creatures and plants of which we consist, that we are able to recognise one another, for it is the whole man, who again recognises us. The colony is not only just so and so many thousands of bees, the whole host of bees is a whole and complete unitary being that recognises a man or does not recognise him. If you had a diminishing glass instead of a magnifying glass you would be able to gather all these bees together; you could then visualise them as united in the same way as a human muscle. It is just this fact that one has to bear in mind with bees — that one is not dealing with single individual bees but must consider them as a whole, as belonging together as one whole.

With the intellect alone this cannot be grasped; one must be able to visualise it as a whole. It is for this reason that the bee colony is so profoundly instructive; it completely refutes all our usual ideas. Our ideas really always tell us that things ought to be different But the most marvellous things happen in the hive; not at all such as we think out with our reason.

That it should have a certain effect upon the bees when, for instance, through the death of the bee-master another has to take his place, is undeniable. Experience has shown it to be a fact. Those who have had to do with many apiaries, and not only with one, know this quite well.

I can tell you that bee-keeping in a variety of ways interested me extremely when I was a boy, though the economic side, the financial problem of bee-keeping did not interest me so much then as later, or today — because honey even in those days was very dear and my parents could not afford to buy any. We got all our honey from our neighbours as a gift, for Christmas or at other times, indeed we had so much given us that we had honey all the year round. Honey was given away in those days.

You see the economic problem was not of great interest to me because, as a boy I ate a terrible lot of honey, as much indeed as I wanted of the honey that was given us.

How could this be? Nowadays, under the same circumstances one could not get so much honey as a gift, but in those days the bee-keepers in the neighbourhood of my parents' home were mostly farmers, and honey was just a part of the general farm produce. This is quite a different matter, gentlemen, from starting bee-keeping as some of you do while living on the wages you earn. On a farm, bee-keeping goes on without one's paying much attention to it. The time it takes up is not considered, is not taken into account. On the farm this was always so, it was time that remained over. Time was saved somewhere or other, or a bit of work was put off till another time and so on. At all events the honey was looked after between-whiles, and one had the idea that honey is something so precious that one cannot really pay for it at all.

In a certain sense this is quite right, but at the present time conditions are such that all price levels are quite false. It is fundamentally impossible to discuss prices today, for the whole question ought to be discussed on a much wider basis, on the basis of economics. Nothing much results if one discusses the price of separate food substances, and honey is a food substance, not merely a luxury or a pleasure. In a healthy social order a healthy price for honey would naturally be found; this is undoubted.

But because we do not live under healthy social conditions at the present day, all our problems are placed in an unhealthy position. When you visit big farms today and hear what the farm-bailiff has to say (as a rule it is not a peasant, but a bailiff) when he tells you how much milk he gets from his cows, it is horrible! He gets so many gallons of milk a day that anyone knowing the nature of the cow realises it is quite unnatural to get so much milk from a cow. But they manage to get it! Quite certainly gentlemen, they manage to get it! Some of them in my opinion, get up to twice as large a quantity as the cow should really give. In this way the farm can obviously become exceedingly profitable. One cannot even say that it is as yet very noticeable, but the milk has not got the same force as milk produced under normal conditions; one cannot immediately prove the great harm that is being done.

Perhaps I might tell you the following. We have made experiments with a remedy for foot-and-mouth disease in cattle; we have made many such experiments during the last few years. They were carried out on large farms as well as on smaller ones where the milk production was not pushed so far as on the big farms. Much could be learnt in this way because one had to test how the remedy worked in foot-and-mouth disease.

The matter however, was not carried to a conclusion, for the officials in charge did not agree, and today so many concessions and so on, are necessary. But the remedy succeeded well, and with a slight alteration, it has also had very good results in distemper in dogs, under the name of “Distempo.”

When one makes these experiments one discovers the following: —

One finds that calves bred from cows that have been brought to an excessive production of milk, are considerably weaker. You see it in the way the remedy affects them. The working or nonworking of the remedy, so to speak, can be tremendously increased in such cases. The calf grows up if it does not die of the disease, but the calf bred from a cow that has been over-stimulated to this over-production of milk, a calf of such breeding is weaker than calves bred from cows that have never been so forced. This change can be observed through the first, second, third or fourth generations, but is then so slight that observation is not easy. This breeding for milk-production is still of short standing, but I know very well that if it continues, if a cow is forced to yield six gallons of milk a day, if you continue thus maltreating it, all breeding of cows will after a time go absolutely to ruin. There is nothing to be done.

Well, in artificial bee-keeping things are, naturally not fundamentally so bad, because the bee is a creature that can always help itself again, that is indeed, incredibly able to help itself because the bee lives so much nearer to Nature than the cow that is being bred in this fashion. It is not even quite so bad if cows so maltreated for milk-production are nevertheless at times taken out to pasture. But on the big dairy farms this is no longer done. These farms have nothing but stall-feeding; the cow is completely torn away from natural conditions.

You cannot afford to do this in bee-keeping. Thanks to its nature the bee remains united with external Nature; it helps itself again. And you see, gentlemen, this self-help in the bee-hive is something extremely wonderful.

We now come to what Herr Müller said about the bumblebees and hornets he sometimes finds in his bee-hives, which did not sting him, whereas it can be sometimes rather a disaster to meet a hornet.

I would like here to tell you something else. I do not know whether those of you who are bee-keepers have already experienced this; it may happen that you have an empty hive, and I once saw a strange thing in an empty hive, something like a lump. At first one could not make out what it was. The bees appeared, apparently for no good reason at all, to have made a lump out of all their usual products, out of all sorts of things. A lump just like a big stone and surrounded by all manner of resin and pitch, glue-like substances, wax and so on; such things as the bees also collect. I was curious to know what this was and I took the lump to pieces, and behold, there was a dead mouse inside

You see, the mouse had got into the hive and died there, and now imagine what a terrible thing the smell of a dead mouse would have been for the bees. In this emergency the whole colony had the instinct to surround the dead mouse with a shell. When one took this shell to pieces it smelt horribly, but the smell had remained quite shut up within the shell.

You see, gentlemen, within the hive was not only the instinct to build cells, to feed the brood, but, in an emergency, the instinct for something unusual, for what has to be done when a dead mouse is in the hive! Since the bees were not sufficient in number to carry the mouse away, they helped themselves; they made a shell all round it.

I have heard from others that snails or slugs which had crept inside hives were also thus encrusted. In the hive not only ordinary instincts are living, but true healing instincts; these are exceedingly active in the hive.

Well — if there is a hornets nest in the hive the bees do not enclose it with a hard shell, but continually surround the nest with excretions of their poison, so that the hornets lose all energy, all power to attack. Just as the mouse, the dead mouse in there can no longer send its smell in all directions, so the hornet, though not so firmly imprisoned, is continually exposed to the exhalations with which the bees surround it, and thereby gets so weakened that they can do nothing. The hornet loses all its strength, and can no longer use its sting to defend itself when you come near it.

It is really so, that one only does justice to the bees when one goes beyond mere intellect and actually follows up the facts with a certain inner vision. It is quite wonderful, this picture. One must therefore say, the bee-colony is a totality. It must be seen as a totality. But in a totality the harm does not appear all in a moment.

You see, if one knows men well, one can say for instance, the following: — A man — there are such men — is fairly fresh and strong at the age of 65 or 66; another man is not so fresh because he suffers inwardly from too much lime in his arteries, etc. To observe this, and to bring it into connection with what had occurred in his childhood, is extremely interesting.

For example, one can give a child milk that comes from cows who get too much fodder from a lime-stone soil. Even in the milk with which the child is nourished, the child gets some elements of this limey soil. This may not perhaps be at once evident. A doctor of the kind we have today, may come along and show you a child fed on milk derived from a limey soil, and another child fed with its mother's milk and he says, “It makes no difference at all,” and so on. But the child fed on its mother's milk is still fresh at the age of 65 or 66, and the child fed on the cow's milk has too much lime in the blood-vessels at the same age. This is so because man is a whole, and what works in one period of time still continues to be active at a much later period. A thing can be entirely healthy at one moment, and yet it works on later.

This is what I mean when I say that from the conditions. of bee-keeping today, you cannot draw conclusions as to what artificial methods of bee-keeping signify, or do not signify. One must think how will it be 50, 60 or 100 years hence! It is quite comprehensible that someone should say today — I do not understand how this will be quite different in 50, 60 or 100 years time — this is quite comprehensible.

It once happened to me on a farm, that all in good nature, I was nearly killed when I began to say that one ought not to get so much milk, for the breeding of cows would suffer even sooner, and would be ruined within a quarter of a century. One cannot as yet say very much against these artificial methods in bee-keeping today, because we are now living under conditions in which nothing can be done in the social domain.

But it must be recognised that there is a great difference in whether one allows Nature to take a free course, or whether one brings artificial methods into the matter. I do not want to protest against what Herr Müller has said. It is quite correct. Today one cannot as yet confirm these things; one must wait for this. We will discuss it together in a 100 years time, Herr Müller, and see what your opinion is then! It is a question that cannot be decided at the moment.

(HERR ERBSMHEL once more points out that modern bee-keeping is entirely a matter of making it profitable).


The more you find that a man does his bee-keeping as a hobby, the more you will find him in agreement with the Spaniard whom you quoted just now. This farmer did not do much reckoning up as to profit; this is not generally the case today, but 50 or 60 years ago the farmer did not do much reckoning as to what he could make out of his bees; it was hardly taken into account. He either gave the honey away, or if he sold it, he put the money into the children's money boxes — or something similar. Today, the whole conditions are quite different. One cannot imagine that a man paid by the hour, or in any sense dependent on time for his payment, would not feel himself obliged to take profit-making into account. He is simply driven to it by circumstances. Today there are bee-keepers who as working men, must stay away from their work now and again, must take leave of absence if they want to carry on their bee-keeping in the right way — this is so is it not? (Certainly.) Then, quite naturally, they count up what they did not get — from other work.

Just think for a moment; bee-keeping is so ancient that no one can say today from any external evidence what bee-keeping really was when the bee was still undomesticated. For the most part people know only our bees, I mean the European honey-bees, and they know only domestic bee-keeping. Natural History books write mostly about the bee which is universally spread in Europe, as “the common. hive-bee.” Thus one only knows about domestic bee-keeping. This is well worth our attention, gentlemen, that one knows only domestic bee-keeping; one is not aware what it was all like when only Nature herself was at work. Bee-keeping is very ancient. And when things are so old as this prices must be fixed on quite a different basis from that on which we mostly work today. For this reason we really have to say that here also we must trust that little by little men will come to realise that better social conditions must be brought about. I believe there will then be less talk as to whether things are profitable or not. These competitive ideas, even if they do not imply competition among those engaged in the production of similar goods, have at any rate to do with those who produce different goods.

I will now answer any other questions connected with what has already been said.


There are people who cannot digest honey at all. They immediately get stomach trouble. Is there any way of preventing these bad effects of eating honey?


People who cannot take honey are, as a rule, those who in early life have had some tendency to sclerosis, to a hardening of the whole body, so that the whole digestive process is too slow. That is why they cannot digest honey which tends to accelerate the metabolic process. Because these persons digest too slowly, the honey wants to make It quicker, and so they quarrel with their own digestion, with the result that they have pains in the stomach.

Everybody ought really to be able to enjoy a little honey — that is, not only to “enjoy” it, but to have the inner capacity to do so. When one finds people unable to digest honey, one has first to look for the actual cause. You must not think there is a general remedy, an universal remedy, but one can make use of one remedy or another, dependent on the causes which have resulted in this hardened body. For example, the cause might be as follows: let us say, a man cannot take honey; he gets indigestion. One asks oneself: “Does this man get indigestion because, as we say, he has a tendency to a sclerosis of the head, as it is called, to a calcifying of the veins and arteries, the blood-vessels of the head?” It can happen, in this case, that at a certain age he is unable to digest honey. To cure such a man we must take a preparation of phosphorus, and if one can cure him he will then be able to take honey. Or it may also happen that one finds the trouble in the lungs. One must then not take phosphorus, but a preparation of sulphur. Thus the answer to the question is that one cannot say in general that a man has indigestion when he eats honey, how can we cure it? But one must say: If a man at a certain age is not able to eat honey, it is an illness. A healthy man can eat honey. If he cannot digest it he is ill, and one must find out what is wrong with him and cure it. Not to be able to digest honey is, however, less important than not to be able to take sugar, as, for instance, when a man has “diabetes mellitus,” or sugar-sickness. This, of course, is worse, then he is really ill, much more so than when he cannot digest honey. But even in this case he is somewhat ill and one must cure the illness.


Like most other insects, in the dark, bees will fly towards candle or lamp-light. I have been frequently assured by experienced bee-keepers that bees are much less attracted by electric light. When one goes to them with a pocket electric torch they keep quite quiet, as though they did not notice the light at all. Only after some little time do they get restless Lamp or candle-light affects them much more quickly, and in greater numbers. Is there any explanation for this behaviour? Herr Müller says he has observed the same thing.


You will probably have seen, gentlemen, in the old Goetheanum, that the cupolas were painted inside with different colours, colours made from pure vegetable substances. But this making of colours from various plant-substances finally proved that they would have completely faded away if the Sun had shone into the cupola. If one had exposed these colours for some little time, they might have lasted perhaps for some months, perhaps a few years, but exposed to direct sunlight they would have faded so much one would have seen nothing more of the paintings once there.

But exposed to the electric light, they remained. We therefore, used these colours in a way that a painter working in sunlight could not have done at all. In the sunlight they would have faded completely away, whereas in electric light they were permanent.

So you see, sunlight which has chemical properties (and you said bees were aware of this) has effects quite different to those of electric light. Electric light works on all substances in a much more hardening way, it does not dissolve them. That is why the bees feel something like a very slight cramp which they do not feel with sunlight, though of course, they recover again.


With regard to the influences of the Signs of the Zodiac on honey production, the peasants lay great stress on sowing seed when the moon is in the sign of the Twins, and so on. The question is whether this idea as to the Signs of the Zodiac is founded on external data, or if there is more than this in it?


You see, gentlemen, today these things are never dealt with scientifically. But one can treat them scientifically. On the whole colony of bees, as such, there is as I told you, an influence. The bee, and above all the Queen is, in a certain sense, a Sun creature, and thus all that the Sun experiences in that it passes through the Zodiac, has the greater influence. But the bees naturally, depend on the plants, and here indeed, the sowing, the scattering of the seed, can he very much affected by the passage of the moon through a zodiacal sign; this concerns the preparatory substances the bees are able to find in the plants.

These things are by no means fanciful, but as a rule they are represented quite superficially; they should be much more deeply studied.

We have now come to the end of our time. What has to be said further we will discuss next Saturday at 9 o'clock. I think many of you have questions at heart. Bee-keeping is so beautiful and of such great value that one cannot ask enough about it. Ask questions of one another, of Herr Müller, and of me. I believe we shall find a balancing of our contradictory opinions. We need not get our stings ready like the bees but can peacefully discuss them all. But questions must be asked honestly and without reserve.