Unless we have been seriously stung, we seem to love bees. They wear stripy fur coats, emit a sound evocative of summer in a garden, live in a structured and interesting community and most of us know that they perform an indispensable role pollinating much of the food we need. If we eat honey – a commodity whose use dates back to ancient civilisations – the creation of that sweet product will be a major factor in our appreciation of these industrious beings.
The writer of the comprehensive work Bees-at-Law is a barrister who has a special expertise in animal law, so he brings a depth of knowledge to a fascinating subject. The book examines and explains in detail the legal status and rights of these complex creatures, and the rights and responsibilities of those who keep and benefit from them.
How the bee relates to us and our requirements, our responsibilities for her and each other, how she is represented in law, are illustrated by many cases which came to court in several jurisdictions, covering nuisance, danger and negligence, to cite but a few causes of concern. Bees might swarm and sting, they might indeed be provoked to do so, causing complicated legal cases. Bees might even be claimed to be ‘trespassers’ on land other than where their hive is situated.
Over the years, bees have been the subject of much litigation.
This appears to arise in part from a fundamental question: Are bees wild or domesticated creatures? Are they, as Roman lawyers categorised, in a classification still used in England & Wales and other common law countries, ferae naturae, or domitae naturae?
This is how the Jurist Justinian defined the status of the bee in his Body of Civil Law (529-565):
‘Bees are wild by nature; and so if a swarm alight on your tree, it is not to be considered yours, until you have hived it, any more than the birds which build their nests there; and hence, if it be hived by another, it becomes his property …’
Under a legal system like ours, greatly concerned about title (who legally owns an object), possession (the actual holding of an object, whether legal or not) and liability (who can be held legally responsible for any act or omission), the free-flying bee, whether wild or hived, makes an especially interesting subject.
Animus revertendi – an intention to return – is a significant concept. Bees fly freely once they have left the owner’s hive, but the beekeeper expects them to return, and to remain his or her property. But what if they do not?
Judges in Kearry v Pattinson in 1939 found that the owner of bees who had swarmed onto a neighbour’s land lost his rights to the bees – a decision questioned by Sweeney et al.
Justinian’s judicial definition was referenced in an Iowan court case in 1903, in which bees were alleged to have stung a team of horses on the property of another individual, and it was adapted to take account of how society uses this creature to our advantage. The court observed:
‘Bees may not be confined like the wild beasts. To roam seems to be necessary to their existence… bees, while generally classed as ferae naturae, are so useful and common as to be all but domesticated…’
However, there are truly wild bees, whom nobody claims as their property. In a notable case in New Hampshire in 2008 such bees were the subject of legal action. In Belhumeur v Zilm the plaintiff tried to take action for negligence and nuisance, having been stung by wild bees ‘on or about their [Zilm’s] premises’. This action tied up several courts in many complex arguments.
In the case Tutton v Walter in W. Sussex, 1981, bees owned by Tutton foraged on a field of oil seed rape belonging to Walter’s company. This field was sprayed with pesticides the judge accepted were harmful to bees. The defendant argued that the bees were ‘trespassers’ on his land, so he was not liable for the 33 colonies killed by the spraying.
Categorising the bees as ‘trespassers’ was an attempt to place bees in a category between domesticated and wild. The outcome was that bees cannot be compared to human trespassers, who are wrong doers, as they are, on the contrary, beneficial creatures.
A wealth of facts about bees have been researched – the Apiarist Minister in Australia who in 1885 introduced the idea of a bee sanctuary on Kangaroo Island, the Manchester Bee, that symbol of the industrious textile workers who created the city’s wealth, the fact that, under Islamic and Jewish law, bees were unclean, but, to add insult to injury, honey was not, and, at the other end of the spectrum, in yet another example of man’s ingenuity in finding employment for other animals, the use of the western honeybee to sniff out illegal drugs, as they have proved to have an acute ability to respond to the presence of pure cocaine and heroin.
The bee is a potent symbol, evoking many concepts applicable to the human condition, and Sweeney’s final chapter, Searching for the Soul of a Bee, takes us further into the sphere of our relationship with the bee, and indeed other creatures. This chapter illustrates the manner in which all non-human animals are made subject to our dominion and how the law underpins that relationship.
Many readers will be aware that over the past 1000 years, worldwide, animals could be arraigned, tried in court and sentenced to death. Sweeney vividly describes the case of a sow who suffered this terrible punishment in 1386 in Normandy, having been found guilty of killing a child.
How is this relevant to bees? They were in fact subject to the same system. As far as back as 864, the Council of Worms decreed that bees who had stung a man to death should be suffocated in the hive.
‘An eye for an eye’ – the ancient Lex talionis – could profitably be applied to every being.
The concept of the soul, who has one and who does not, is another device useful for human purposes in that we can categorise living beings by this yardstick and treat them well or badly according to our categorisation. For Porphyry, bees had souls ‘… special spirits who love justly, and who, having performed such things as are acceptable to the gods, will return whence they came.’ Sir William Petty, 17th. century English economist, scientist and philosopher, maintained that ‘their souls seem… like the souls of men.’ The Petty family crest bears the image of a hive of bees, and the motto Ut apes geometriam – As bees possess geometry by nature hints at other characteristics possessed by this wonderful creature, and one which might be especially appreciated by a surveyor.
Sweeney highlights the many dangers bees currently face at our hands, a recent instance of which is the controversial use of neonicotinoid poisons sprayed on crops. Sweeney contends: ‘Wherever they are harmed by our pesticides and suffer from indiscriminate spraying they are ‘entitled’ to be protected from us… Bees need a legal ‘personality’ to match ours and their own.’
To sum up, bees need justice, to which humans, or their agents, have recourse. But, if as Sweeney says, ‘you are designated to be a thing as a matter of law’ you are outside the protection of the law.
If the Whanganui River in New Zealand can be granted ‘a legal personality’ – that is ‘a legal entity…’ having ‘all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person’, why cannot our fellow creatures, including the bee, enjoy this status?
“What bees have to tell our world does not need words, only wisdom.”
So said Sweeney in his introductory letter to this reviewer, a phrase which encapsulates as well as any what the reader – lawyer, layperson, beekeeper – will learn from this book.
For the legal professional reader, there is a Table of Cases, a Table of Statutes – referring also to legislation in the European Union, Canada and the United States – and a Table of Statutory Instruments.
The cover illustrations by Kate Lynch, Honey bee on blackberry flower and Honey bee on snowdrop, are very beautiful.
There must be very many titles on the market on the subject of beekeeping.
Bees-at-Law, which encompasses so many spheres in which the human animal and the bee try to co-exist, could be unique, and it is highly recommended.
Bees-at-Law by Noël Sweeney.
First published 2017 by Alibi, an imprint of Veritas Chambers.
~ Marian Hussenbux.