“The Bee Code of Hywel DDA”


THE BEE CODE OF HYWEL DDA [from Kinderlieder (1992)]

The worth of an old colony is twenty-four pence

The worth of the first swarm sixteen pence

The worth of the bull-swarm twelve pence

The third swarm is worth eight pence

The first swarm to come from the primary swarm is
worth twelve pence

The first swarm to come from the bull-swarm eight

The first swarm to come from the third swarm is worth
four new pence
& it should not swarm until after the first of August
& it is called a wing-swarm

The worth of the mother of a hive of bees: it is worth
twenty-four pence

& so they bide until the first of November
From the first of November onwards each one is an old
colony & is worth twenty-four pence except for
the wing-swarm:
it is not an old colony until the first of May
for it is not known till then if it will live

© Copyright John James

This poem is taken almost verbatum from a tenth-century book of laws–the bees are snuggled in the index betwen “bed-ridden” and “beheading”. The book was tranlated and published right before the reign of Queen Victoria in England. I like the incantatory qualities of this poem/law code.

Something in the back of my mind called forth the rhythms and money of this poem. I like the unexpected syntax. It is a great addition to the bee poem in general–and the only poem I can think of that codified bees and their lives and their value. Originally this text is part of the Law Code of Hywel DdaIn another poem James speaks of a “quiet little / cuddly bee”.

Hywel Dda was a tenth-century Welsh king who evidently codified a lot of laws in his time. I think his name might translate to “Howell the Good”. “The Bee Code of Hywel Dda” is weird and compelling in the best way. I like the way that James has taken the original and carefully selected which parts to keep and how to arrange them. I think that Wallace Stevens would have enjoyed it, among others.

Life has tugged me away from the internets of late.  I’m reading more about nature and animals and have set up an elaborate bird feeding system in my back yard (no, my cats never never go outside and there are many safe measure against them doing so).


Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry and music and is in the midst of dying

4 thoughts on ““The Bee Code of Hywel DDA””

  1. I must try and acquire — and read! — a copy of the Hywel Dda Laws, which I once saw published in, I think, a bilingual edition by Gomer Press. Hywel was supposed to have ordered disparate Welsh laws codified, for which he was dubbed “the Good” by posterity, the only Welsh ruler to gain this appelation.

    He’s associated with Whitland/Hendy Gwyn on the borders of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthemshire not far from where I used to live. I now live in Crickhowell — Howell’s hillfort — which some fancy is named after him (I doubt it) even though it dates from around a millennium before his time. An interesting figure, and interesting laws, claimed to afford women more rigjts than was common elsewhere in Europe at that time.

    The prose poetry, needless to say, is delightful.


  2. Thanks for sharing this verse. It is unusual but also enjoyable.

    Strangely enough it does not seem dated. Perhaps that is because I know a few beekeepers who talk a lot about bees.


  3. I really liked this unusual poem. Thank you for sharing it. I hope your bird feeding system brings many beautiful birds to your back yard.


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