People travelling into Beeston by tram are greeted at the intersection of Lower Road and Queens Road by a large sign depicting a beehive and the words ‘Welcome to Beeston’.
The bee is a familiar sight around Beeston; there is the statue of a beehive in the high street, bees appeared on the coat of arms for Beeston and Stapleford, and beehive reliefs even adorn the frontispiece of our beleaguered town hall. It would be reasonable to guess that the ‘Bee’ in ‘Beeston’ is derived from some historical connection of bees with the town, much in the way that the city of Bath is named for its famous Roman baths.
The antiquarian A.E. Lawson Lowe claimed just that when he examined the etymology of the name Beeston in 1888. Lawson Lowe argued that the name Beeston derived from the combination of the Old English words bēo, meaning bee, and tun, meaning town or settlement, and suggested the source of the name might be due to some great abundance of beehives in the area. If this were the case it is curious that, despite the bee iconography that decorates the town, there remains little evidence of great beekeeping activity in the area. Why is it that one can buy honey made in Wollaton, but no unique brand of Beeston-made heritage honey?
There have been various attempts over the years to explain this apparent discrepancy. During the industrial revolution it was suggested that the bees in the name referred to Beeston becoming a ‘hive of activity’. The Survey of English Place Names, produced by The English Place-Name Society in collaboration with the University of Nottingham, has suggested an alternative origin for our town’s name. They argue that the ‘bees’ in Beeston stems from the Old English bēos, meaning bent rye grass or reeds, rather than from bēo, meaning bee, and that ‘Beeston’ means a settlement notable for its grassland, not its bees. There is certainly a case for this. The Old English plural of bees is bēon, and if the town were named for bees it would have incorporated the ‘n’ in bēon, resulting in the name ‘Beenton’ (bēon + tun). Historical references to Beeston support this claim. In the Domesday Book of 1086 the settlement is referred to as Bestune, and in a 1610 map of The Countie of Nottingham held in Beeston library the town is referred to as Beston.
The modern visitor to Beeston, travelling into Beeston by tram and seeing the ‘Welcome to Beeston’ sign, might be surprised to learn that our seemingly developed town was once notable for its sweeping grasslands. Yet this connection between Beeston and grasslands has survived further into modernity than one might first assume. Margaret Cooper recorded in her 1996 book The Beeston Story how older folk could still remember wild rye growing on the Trent Road. In his 1955 description of The River Trent J.H. Ingram describes Beeston as being surrounded by a ‘wide … plain’. The fact that the part of town south of the railway is called Rylands further testifies to this enduring connection with rye grass. This supposed Old English origin of Beeston’s name is perhaps more relevant to Beeston’s recent history than the modern visitor might first assume.
For further reading on the history of Beeston’s name see the following texts available at Beeston Library:
Cooper, M. (1996) The Beeston Story (Nottingham)
Earp, F. E. & Earp, J. (2017) Secret Beeston (Gloucester).
(Yes, it is all about bees).
Roald Dahl once wrote a short story called ‘Royal Jelly’. It revolved around a beekeeper called Albert, who fed his family the bee food, especially his underweight baby daughter. The twist being of course, that he and his daughter turn into bees.
So I was wondering what I would expect when I met experienced local beekeeper Mary Venning, and her three hives, which are situated in the Wollaton Road allotments, one of nine in the area. “Did you know that Oliver Cromwell’s son in law gave this land in perpetuity? That was found out when they built the medical centre.” As anyone that’s visited the site will know, it’s a very big triangle shaped area. We reach Mary’s rather large growing space. “This hive is the most productive at the moment,” says Mary, indicating a hive prominently placed and literally buzzing with the sound of bees. Mary then shows me her other two hives, which don’t seem to be as active. “The queen may have died in this one,” indicating a hive with very little activity around it.
Mary’s bees were also very busy around the parts that they make their honey in, that she had out on display “They are licking all the honey off. Every little bit.” We watched as many, many bees were swarming round these honeycombs. “Bees have such different personalities. I used to have a hive where they were quite aggressive. But the ones now are friendly. People shouldn’t be anxious around them. Bees don’t like loud noises, people waving their arms around, or strong perfumes, as they might think you are a flower. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone. If you do get stung, then pull the sting out and apply something alkali, like milk of magnesia.”
They prefer to gather nectar from open or tubed flowers. Dandelions are the best plant for bees, as its nectar is already 50% food
I asked Mary how she got into beekeeping. “I studied the life of bees as part of my psychology degree. The nature of animals. I then did a beekeeping course when I retired. It was a weekend course over five weeks.” It is an expensive hobby. Did you know that once the queen has been chosen, she is fed royal jelly, created by worker bees? You can see how enthusiastic Mary is about the insects. ‘Buzzing’, you might say as she imparts so much different information about them, quicker than I can write it down. “Bees hum in the key of C major.” Or, “They prefer to gather nectar from open or tubed flowers. Dandelions are the best plant for bees, as its nectar is already 50% food. If only people would let a few dandelions grow in a patch of ground or in a tub, then that would be very helpful to them. Pussy willow and Hawthorne are also good sources of pollen.”
Mary then goes on to tell me about the worker bees’ waggle dancing, a figure of eight movement and how it informs the other bees about where the best pollen can be found, how far it is from the hive and if there are any dangers about. All this in very little, or no light in the hive. She then told me about some joint research being done between Nottingham Trent University and the Centre Apicole de Recherche et D’information in France over the vibration of bees. Martin Bencsik at their Brackenhurst site is also looking at ‘swarm preparation’ that should aid beekeepers in the future, in that it may reveal health of bees and how the hive is doing.
There have been a lot of stories in the news over the last few years about the vast reduction in bee numbers, due to a change in farming practices and the increase in chemicals that are used on the land these days. Bees are vital to the food chain with their pollination of plants and fruit trees. So the work that Mary does, and other beekeepers like her around the world are so important to the life of these interesting and much loved insects and, in fact, for us.