‘Bee-ing’ Neighbours: Bees and Neighbourhood in the Brehon Laws

20th May, ‘World Bee Day’, is no better a time to reflect on the importance of honeybees in early Irish society and the meticulous regulation of bees under the Brehon Laws. Early Irish bees even had their own law tract, Bechbretha (‘Bee Judgments’).

While the basic motivations for regulating bees under the Brehon Laws were informed by the peculiar economic and societal concerns of that time, certain provisions in Bechbretha can still give pause for thought today. The preservation of bees, particularly the western honeybee, has latterly taken on a renewed urgency in the midst of environmental degradation, human food chain insecurity, and phenomena such as honeybee ‘colony collapse disorder’. A possibility of honeybees helping in the fight against Covid-19 [1] is yet another sign of their untapped potential value and the gravity of losing them.

Here I aim to share a general overview of Bechbretha, much of which is derived from the seminal edited work on Bechbretha by T.M. Charles Edwards and Fergus Kelly [2], originally published in 1983. Before doing so, I very briefly outline certain aspects of land and ‘neighbourhood’ in early Ireland for context.

Image 1: Excerpt from the law tract, Bechbretha. Note the references to ‘beich’ (bees) on the right hand side) (Image Credit: Trinity College Dublin: – Precious Irish-language manuscripts showcased at conference and exhibition – Trinity News and Events (tcd.ie)

Some Aspects of Land and Neighbourhood in Early Ireland

Early Ireland was a pastoral mixed farming society. A substantial proportion of farmland in the 7th and 8th centuries was ‘kin land’ (fintiu), which was divided amongst qualifying male kin (fine) members individually [3]. If there were no male heirs, it was also possible for women, known as ‘female heirs’ (banchomarbae), to hold land under restrictions [4]. The kin members would pool their labours by engaging in cooperative farming, though each kinsperson retained a right to the produce of their own land and livestock (subject to any legal obligations mandating supply of food to a lord). Cooperative farming included, for example, joint ploughing and herding of cattle on fintiu [5].

The principle of ‘neighbourhood’ (comaithches) was well known to the Brehon Laws and a tract, Bretha Comaithchesa (‘Judgments of Neighbourhood’), was dedicated to the general subject [6]. The main concern of Bretha Comaithchesa was how to deal with damage caused by trespassing farm animals [7]. But minor incursions onto neighbouring land were permitted. Some of these would be comparable to rights of way (‘easements’) in the modern law, such as using a bridge or driving cattle across land where no other route was available. Encroachments upon neighbouring land when, for instance, constructing a fishing weir, or cutting a ‘race’ for a water mill to grind corn [8], were acceptable and neighbours would operate a rota system for using shared water mills [9]. The Bechbretha (‘Bee Judgments’) also slotted into this overall legal framework governing ‘the neighbourhood’.

Honeyed Law: Beekeeping and Bechbretha

Exactly when the honeybee emerged in, or reached, Ireland is debatable. An early tradition suggests they were brought over from Britain in the 7th century by the Christian saint Mo Domnóc. But other (e.g. linguistic) evidence points to the presence of honeybees in Ireland at a much earlier period, likely predating the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century.

Image 2: A swarm clustered on the traditional ‘white cloth’ (Image Credit: Michael Wainwright, killowen.com)

Bechbretha does not go into great detail on the practical methods of bee-keeping and honey extraction in early Ireland but does allude to certain activities that chime with it. For example, there is reference to a ‘spread cloth’ (brat scarthae) in Bechbretha. This would be familiar to more recent generations of beekeepers as the ‘white cloth’ (about 4 feet square), placed near a swarm of bees prior to them being put into a box/container, which would then be placed face down on the cloth. The box/container would be brought to a pre-prepared hive, with part of the cloth then rendered as a sort of exit route to the hive.

Bechbretha has been dated to the 7th-early 8th century and, given its drafting style, is thought to have been written by a member of the legal profession for other lawyers in training. It is unlikely that its elaborate requirements were always consistently applied in the real world – the same could be said of other early Irish law tracts too. Still, Bechbretha conveys value judgments of the early Irish legal profession regarding the appropriate treatment and regulation of bees.

While peculiar in its level of detail on some points (outlined further below), Bechbretha is not unique in terms of subject matter. Bees were also addressed in the early Welsh, Visigothic, Burgundian, Frankish, Hittite and Albanian law codes, for example [10]. A major reason for legal intervention in this area was, undoubtedly, the economic and societal significance of honey in earlier times. Honey was highly rated for its medicinal properties. It was a key food sweetener and preservative before sugarcane became more widely available from c. the 12th century. It was used too in the production of mead. Beeswax was another important honeybee product, especially helpful for the running of Christian monasteries [11].

Image 3: Depiction of bee-keeping in the Egyptian tomb of Pabasa c. 650 B.C. – beekeeping was a major activity in many ancient cultures (Image Credit: Beekeeping in ancient Egypt and today | Egypt at the Manchester Museum (wordpress.com))

Bechbretha is concerned with roughly four subjects: 1) beekeeping and neighbourly relations; 2) injuries caused by bees; 3) ownership of bee swarms and their produce; and 4) bee theft. The overall objective of this law tract is to try and slot the regulation bees into the broader ‘law of neighbourhood’, outlined earlier. In so doing, the author of Bechbretha ambitiously tries to treat bees as similarly as possible to farm animals.

So the notion that bees could trespass on land in the same way as cows, pigs etc. is advanced by Bechbretha. In going about their nectar gathering business, bees could not, of course, have known that they were committing the offence of ‘grazing trespass’ (tairsce). The law tract’s author, understanding that bees would innately move across artificial human boundary lines, came up with a clever solution, at least for handling conventional situations.

When a person first started bee-keeping, they were required to provide a ‘fore-pledge’ (tairgille), i.e. items of personal significance, to their four nearest neighbours. This fore-pledge gave the original bee-keeper immunity for three years from legal claims (soíre) for offences by their bees. Sharing of honey with the community was nonetheless required in specific circumstances, such as mían ngalair (‘the desire of sickness’), e.g. where a neighbour fell ill and honey had been prescribed by a physician. In the fourth and fifth year, each of the neighbours in turn were entitled to a swarm from the hive of the original owner. But here was the genius part – any trespasses by their newly acquired bees were deemed to cancel out those committed earlier by the first neighbour’s bees. The first neighbour’s fore-pledges were then also returned.

Image 3: Saint Gobnait of Ballyvourney, a sixth-century patron saint of beekeepers – design for the Honan Chapel, University College Cork, Ireland, 1914 (Image Credit, Harry Clarke, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of penalties for injuries inflicted by bees on humans, Bechbretha continues with a theme of bees’ autonomous decision-making, justifying their self-defence in certain circumstances: Is di ruidilsib i mbechbrethaib la Féniu cip é forsa ruirset occacullad occa cumscuchud occa ngabáil occa ndécsin dara sostu ind amsir i tochunlat – ‘Among the complete immunities in bee-judgments according to Irish law is the man on whom they have rushed when robbing them, moving them, seizing them [or] looking at them over their hives at the time when they are swarming’.

However, there were limits on how far the bees should push things. As recalled in one provision: ‘It is wrong for them…should they attack anyone going past them on his way who is doing them no harm or illegality’. An unprovoked bee assault entitled an injured person to honey, but if they had killed the culprit bee then they got nothing: Ar is sí-ede fuil sáith ind fir di mil for gaibther and la fír óthá suidiu nad romarb in mbech rod-mbí; ar ma romarbtharside ar-tét a chinaid amal chách (‘For this is an injury which entails his sufficiency of honey for the man who is stung there, with an oath from him that he did not kill the bee which stung him; for if it is killed, it compensates for his offence, as in every other case’).

Bechbretha also contains a rare reference in the Brehon Laws to an apparent legal case involving a verifiable historical person, even if the reputed facts of the case itself are suspect. Here it is said that Congal Cáech, King of Tara (possibly sometime between 630 and 635), was blinded in one eye by a bee. This ultimately cost him the kingship, a nod to the importance placed on kings being physically unblemished in early Ireland. Congal judged that a beehive should be forfeit for such a blinding injury, identified by ‘casting lots’ on suspect hives in the area. To-bert a chin forsin fer batar beich noch is sí breth inso brethae la Ultu Féniu imbi (‘He charged the man who owned the bees with its offence and this is the judgment which was passed by the Ulaid [people of the kingdom of Ulaid] and the Féni [the Irish freemen generally] about it’).

Bechbretha goes on to grapple with a number of complex scenarios regarding bee ownership and entitlements to their produce, such as when a tracked swarm settled in a tree and/or in the lands of privileged (nemed) persons, such as kings, clerics, poets etc. For instance, if a person tracked bees to a tree owned by a nemed, then the bees effectively became the property of the nemed. But provided the bees had been tracked by their original owner, that person was still entitled to one third of the produce for a fixed period. The other two thirds went respectively to the nemed and any neighbours on whose lands the bees gathered nectar.

If someone happened to stumble upon ‘stray’ bees on unowned land, in forests or near lakes etc., they were seemingly permitted to fully claim that swarm. This was, though, still subject to an ‘overarching’ community obligation to share some of the produce with their fine and the Church: Fer fo-gaib fríth mbech hi ruud no dírainn no écmacht: is díles do suidiu ar is óenruidles la Féniu acht cuit n-ági fine cuit n-ecailse frisa mbí audacht; noch is sí a cuit-side: train as cach trium arnacon derbarthar eclais na fine di neoch do-ruillet a membur (‘The man who finds a stray swarm in a forest or unshared land or inaccessible country: it is immune for him, for it is one of the complete immunities in Irish law except for the share of the chief of the kindred and the share of the church to which he makes a bequest: and this is their share: one third from every third lest the church or the kindred be defrauded of anything which their members may be entitled to’).

Theft of bees was usually sternly dealt with – the exact penalty depended on where the bees had been taken from, e.g., if they were removed from a garden or courtyard of a house, the offence was treated with the same severity as if the thief had stolen items from within the house itself.

Some concluding thoughts

Bechbretha is emblematic of the high priority of honeybees in early Irish society. The practice of beekeeping and the honeybee as an ‘economic unit’ therefore demanded specific regulation in that context. The policy objective was clearly not about protecting the honeybee in the context of ‘environmental concerns’ we would be familiar with today.

That said, the way in which Bechbretha approaches this topic implies that bee propagation and conservation would have been happy side effects of these rules, to whatever extent they were applied in practice. In particular, we can see how Bechbretha encouraged cooperative beekeeping in the community ‘swarm sharing’ framework. The killing of bees was also economically disincentivised.

Perhaps most interesting for modern purposes is how Bechbretha formed a key piece of a bigger jigsaw in the law of neighbourhood. This framework promoted a balance between individualism, private property rights and community cooperation. This could be instructive today when thinking about how modern society might better address some of the serious challenges it faces, not least threats to the honeybee. More sustainable, community-centric behaviours would certainly hark back to an earlier wisdom.

This article may be cited as J. Biggins, ‘‘Bee-ing’ Neighbours: Bees and Neighbourhood in the Brehon Laws’, The Brehon Lawyer (May 2021)

Sources used for this article

Brian D. Joseph, ‘Comparative Perspectives on Bee Law in Indo-European’ (2018) 2 Chatreššar: International Journal for Indo-European, Semitic and Cuneiform Languages 16

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Routledge, 2017)

Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1997), (‘Kelly 1’)

Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2009) (‘Kelly 2’)

Lorna Siggins, ‘Galway firm Cellnutrition Health hopes honeybee mix could be sting in tail for Covid’, The Times (21 February 2021) (Link)

T.M. Charles-Edwards, Early Irish and Welsh Kinship (Clarendon Press, 1993)

T.M. Charles-Edwards and Fergus Kelly, Bechbretha (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2020)


[1] Siggins

[2] Charles-Edwards & Kelly – the section of this article Honeyed Law: Beekeeping and Bechbretha draws most of its material from this source

[3] Kelly 1, p. 402

[4] Kelly 1, p. 401

[5] Kelly 2, p. 101

[6] Charles Edwards, pp. 415-430

[7] Charles-Edwards, pp. 424-428

[8] Kelly 2, p. 108

[9] Charles-Edwards, pp. 428-429

[10] Ó Cróinín; Joseph

[11] Ó Cróinín