Gathering honey from wild bees
12,000 years ago already, man began to harvest honey and wax from wild bees in systematic fashion. Apiary, the keeping of bees, came to enjoy great significance in Ancient Egypt and later in Ancient Greece. In the 8th century A.D., the Emperor Charlemagne issued special regulations concerning beekeeping and made it a highly respected occupation. In addition to hives made of straw, natural and artificial holes in woodland trees were important ‘equipment’ for beekeepers. Beekeeping flourished until about 1600, but after than the demand for honey and beeswax began to decline. Honey was increasingly replaced as a sweetener by sugar, while the use of hops for preserving and flavouring beer caused the demand for mead (wine made from honey) to fall dramatically. The original forms of beekeeping described here are no longer practised; they have been replaced by modern methods of domestic beekeeping. Often, however, modern beekeepers still take their hives out into the woods to gather the highly regarded honey from conifers. The gathering of wild honey developed into a properly regulated occupation. The swarms of bees were looked after in certain woodland trees. The foresters selected suitable trees and the beekeepers then removed the crowns of these trees before making a hollow in them at a height of several metres. This hollow was then boarded over and a hole was made in the other side of the trunk that was large enough for the bees to fly through. The beekeeper then transferred a swarm of bees to this hollow, sometimes imprisoning the queen bee in a little cage to discourage the swarm from leaving again. The beekeeper then placed his own mark on the tree, usually an unmistakable symbol. Anyone who altered or removed such a mark was liable to harsh punishment. In areas where beekeeping was practised on a large scale, the beekeepers often formed a guild and drew up a set of regulations stating their rights and duties as well as laying down punishments for those who flouted the regulations.
Formerly location of the lime tree near Kastl in the
Amberg – Sulzbach district between G and H, map of 1688
Mining and forestry operations were for many centuries the chief influence on the development of the forests in the Upper Palatinate and, especially, in the Amberg district. The Upper Palatinate was regarded as one of the centres of the iron industry in the late Middle Ages.
Charcoal was vitally important for smelting iron ore. The great advantage was the massive reduction in weight that occurs when freshly-felled wood is turned into charcoal; at the same time, charcoal produces a much more intense heat.
About two cubic metres of pinewood are required for the production of 50 kg of iron. Nearly 21 million kg of iron were produced in the Amberg district alone in 1609. For that quantity of iron, about 1 million cubic metres of wood were necessary. The consequence was damaged, devastated, exploited, crippled woodland with few species of flora and fauna in it.
Even today, local names for certain sections of the forest indicate that charcoal-burning was carried on there, e.g., Kohlbrand and Kohlberg.
Places of pile of wood near Weiherhammer, Upper Palatinate
Constructing a charcoal kiln
The base of the furnace is covered with branches radiating from the central point. Boards are laid on them to form a circle. Then, either a sturdy wooden post is rammed into the ground in the middle of this platform or else a shaft is built inside the kiln and two or three layers of chopped firewood from coniferous and deciduous trees are stacked up around it. In this example, 60 cubic metres of pinewood have been used. The pile of wood is covered with fresh twigs and charcoal earth. By making a temporary opening at the foot of the pile, the wood in the centre can then be ignited. It continues to burn for several days and during that time holes have to be made in the charcoal earth with a wooden pole in order to let air in and out of the pile.
When, after a few days, the pile of wood has finished burning, it is opened up and the earth is removed. The embers can then go on glowing until the process is fully completed. About 100 kg of combustible charcoal can be produced from a cubic metre of wood, i.e. 20 kg of charcoal can be produced from 100 kg of wood.
Resin and its uses
Collecting natural resin from trees in order to make pitch is one of the oldest woodland trades, one that has been practised since the Stone Age. The use of resin as a sealant for ships and barrels used to be widespread, and even today the now rare oak beer-barrels are sealed with resin.
Until about 1925, however, resin was the most important basis for the production of pitch, pitch oil, cart grease, etc., and printer’s ink. In other chemical processes, paints, fats, celluloid and even linoleum could be produced from it.
The main components of natural resin are colophonium (70%), spirits of turpentine (20%) and water (10%). Resin occurs naturally in many types of conifer and acts on them as a preservative and disinfectant, and also as a kind of natural covering for wounds. When harvesting resin, forestry workers take advantage of this last-mentioned property. The bark of the trees is systematically ‘damaged’ and the resin that is pressed into the wound by the tree is collected in special containers.
The annual harvest per tree varies greatly and can be, according to the species and location, between 100 g (e.g. from a spruce in the former forestry district of Vilseck in 1916) and 3000 g (e.g. from a black spruce in Austria). In 1916, during the First World War, the Vilseck Forestry District harvested 1722 kg of natural resin from 54 hectares of woodland. The resin was prepared for further processing by heating it up on the spot and pouring it into clay moulds. A more efficient method was to transport it to pitch or resin kilns, where it was heated to boiling point and then clarified. The German words for pitch and resin are ‘Pech’ and ‘Harz’, and the now vanished charcoal-burners’ trade is recalled in old names for sections of the forest like Pechbrunn or Harzwald.
In the spring or early summer, when the flow of resin in the conifers was strongest, the resin-gatherers would come to specially designated sections of the woods and made incisions in the tree-trunks. Using a sharp, knife-like instrument, they removed vertical strips of bark that were 2-3 cm long and 3-5 cm wide. Resin would start bleeding from the trees that were injured in this way, and often flowed right down to their roots. Only trees that were destined to be felled in the next five years were allowed to be bled. The resin-gatherers returned in the autumn to scrape off the resin that had run down the tree-trunks. The resin was put into containers made of bark and transported by cart to the place where the pitch was processed. The processing usually took place during the winter season.
Gathering leaf litter – a scourge of the woodlands
When, about 1765, farmers began keeping cows, pigs and goats indoors in sheds, straw was too expensive for them to put it on the floor as animal bedding. Instead, they went into the woods and raked up leaves, pine needles, bark, little twigs, soil and even moss, ferns and the leaves and branches from wild-berry bushes and spread these on the floor of their sheds.
Organic waste is, however, not useless refuse; on the contrary, the nutrients stored in it become available to plants again once it has been broken down into compost by a highly specialised group of plants and animals (fungi, insects and earthworms). Leaf litter is a natural fertiliser.
The gathering of this litter, and thus the removal of these nutrients, had dramatic consequences for the growth of the forests, consequences that are still visible today in narrow annual rings in the trunks of felled trees.
During the First World War, alone, 7.5m cubic metres of leaf litter were raked up in the woods. As a result, the trees in areas where the soil became impoverished are badly stunted.
During the Second World War, as well, many farmers resorted to using leaf litter again; for example, the mayor of Ehenfeld / Oberpfalz was supplied with 300 cubic metres of litter from the forest at Neuersdorf on June 4, 1941.
The farmers’ litter-gathering rights had been withdrawn gradually by the end of the 1970s.