Beekeeper who got buzz out of book collecting

James Mitchell
James Mitchell
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SETTING up a plantation in Malawi began John Moir’s fascination with the bees whose hard work made him a success.

Under glorious African skies, John Moir watched busy bees flit from plant to plant, pollinating the lush crops which grew around his sprawling plantation.

There were fields of cotton, acres of rubber trees, hundreds of bushes lush with “cherries”, inside each of which lurked a powerful bean that would eventually bring a taste of fresh and exotic coffee to British shores.

Edinburgh-born Moir peered through his spectacles, captivated by the tiny insects. So small yet so terribly vital, they busied themselves in their unique world, nature at its most vibrant and 

It was the end of the 19th century, the Scot had arrived in East Africa, inspired by David Livingstone, determined to help bring an end to the vile slavery trade and open up new commerce routes in a country rich with potential.

He certainly succeeded. The African Lakes Company which he founded with brother Frederick went on to become one of Malawi’s biggest employers. Eventually its 
headquarters, the firm and even the city in which it operated, Blantyre, would become known as Mandala – an affectionate reference to John’s spectacles given by curious natives who had never before seen a man wearing glasses.

That the son of an Edinburgh physician had left his mark on that small corner of the world, there is little doubt – the firm he founded continued to operate until just a few years ago. But bizarrely, it would be the colonies of bees that busied themselves around his verdant plantation at Mulanje, 50 miles from Blantyre, which would inspire perhaps his most unusual legacy of all.

In a corner of the National Library of Scotland at George IV Bridge is a precious collection of rare books. One is nearly four centuries old, among its fragile pages is a stunning engraving of bees, the first illustration captured by an Italian artist as they gazed down one of Galileo’s new-fangled microscopes. It is so intricately detailed – tiny, fine lines for each hair, the piercing sting and the delicate sheath of wings – that it almost looks as if the bees could fly straight from the page.

In another book, an 18th century gentleman in frock coat and breeches, cocked hat and wig – no humble farmer but clearly a man of reasonable status – seems to dice with danger as he attempts to lure a swarm of bees into an overturned “skep” – a conical basket that served as their hive.

And yet another tome, printed in Edinburgh in 1795, addresses a problem which bothers beekeepers to this day in its wordy title: A New Plan for Speedily Increasing the Number of Bee-Hives in Scotland Which May Be Extended With Equal Success to England, Ireland, America and Any Other Part of the World Capable of Producing Flowers.

They are part of The Moir Rare Book Collection, a library of the finest and rarest beekeeping books on the planet, consisting of hundreds of books, papers and periodicals from around the world, the oldest dating as far back as 1625.

There are books written in foreign languages, complex scientific research papers and even the very first book published in English to focus solely on the health benefits of honey. Published in 1759 it sits alongside an unpublished and long-believed lost manuscript on beekeeping in Perthshire, dated 1804.

They were gathered in a frenzy of collecting by John Moir, who had left his Malawi plantation and the African Lakes Company to retire to Edinburgh in 1890, bringing with him what was by then a strong appetite for beekeeping matched only by his love of books. The launch of the Scottish Beekeepers Association (SBA) in 1912, then, was the perfect 
opportunity to combine his two great passions.

As James Mitchell, curator of the Rare Book Collections at the National Library Scotland, explains, Moir was not unlike the busy bees he so admired, setting about his task as collector with a determination and steely focus. The more books he acquired, it seemed the more actively he sought out those he lacked.

“He was a voracious collector of books,” he explains. “By the end, he had almost a couple of thousand books, all about bees.

“Ten years ago the Scottish Beekeepers Association contacted us to have a look at the collection,” recalls Mr Mitchell. “They knew some of the items were quite rare, but I don’t think they realised just how valuable they were.

“Most have engravings of bees and beekeepers, and some show the beekeepers are being landed gentry types and definitely not regular farmers as we might have thought. We have one of the first books dealing with the difficulties of keeping bees in Scotland, which basically suggested it was all down to the weather – so even then the weather was a problem.

“The 1625 book is possibly the crowning item in the collection, there are only two of these books in the world,” he adds. “It contains this huge engraving of bees produced in Rome, the first illustration to be made with the aid of a 

“The work is amazing.”

Overall, he says, the Moir Collection is probably the finest and most comprehensive assortment of beekeeping books in the world: “Only Cornell University in New York, which has a huge agriculture faculty, can compete.”

Normally kept out of sight, key pieces from the collection will go on display at the National Library of Scotland from next Friday, as part of a week-long exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the Scottish Beekeepers Association.

While they provide a fascinating insight into the work of bees and their keepers down the centuries, Una Robertson, library convener for the SBA, says the man who gathered the books together is just as 

“His is like a Boy’s Own type of adventure,“ says Una, who lives in Trinity. “The beekeeping side only started after he’d already achieved 
remarkable things.”

Moir, the son of an Edinburgh physician, was working in a London office – it’s not clear precisely what he was doing – when, aged 27, he decided his true vocation lay following in the footsteps of David Livingstone, in missionary work in Africa.

It was the late 1870s when he set off with brother Frederick to what is now Tanzania, with plans to create a trade road from the Zanzibar coast to Lake Nyasa – a route originally explored by Livingstone.

The distance, however, was too great, and instead they turned attention to the lakes district of central Africa, where the mission station of Livingstonia and Blantyre had been settled. They launched the Livingstonia Trading Company – later to become the African Lakes Company – with the double aim of aiding missions and introducing trade to lands where the only connection with the outside world had been through the slave trade.

But Arab slave traders were unimpressed. And in 1887 fighting broke out as they tried to drive the white developers and the African Lakes Company out of Central Africa.

“There was a lot of slavery in the area at the time – slaves were used to transport ivory from the interior to the coast,” explains Una. “John and Frederick’s idea was to open up the interior and find alternative routes for trade, new commodities and new ways of trading.

“They achieved that, but had to fight a two-year war with the slave traders and both were severely wounded during the course of it.”

Perhaps the turmoil of fighting left its mark. While Frederick left to run the company from Glasgow, John became a plantation farmer on land south of Blantyre. There he introduced crops such as cotton, rubber and coffee – brought as specimens from, of all places, the Royal Botanic 
Garden Edinburgh.

“Of course he needed bees for 
pollination,” explains Una. “Apparently the local bees didn’t fly far enough, so he introduced other bees to the area.”

It was the beginning of an obsession. Once retired and back in Edinburgh he would spend hours observing his bees’ behaviour, entering into long debate in The Scotsman letters pages about how to cure various diseases and rid his colonies of lethal 
infestations of mites.

And, of course, he spent probably as much time collecting books . . . hundreds of them.

“He simply must just have had this absolute fascination for bees,” says Una. “Who knows why he decided to continue beekeeping once he’d left Africa and returned to Edinburgh?

“But beekeeping is like that,” she adds with a wry smile. “You are either a beekeeper for a year or two or you will be a lifelong beekeeper.

“And what he has given us is a vast spread of knowledge we might not have otherwise had.”

• Books from the Moir Rare Book Collection will go on show at the National Library of Scotland from next Friday. For details of the Scottish Beekeepers Association and its centenary events, go to

Hive of activity

THERE are 250 species of bumblebees worldwide and 24 live in Britain, although within the last 70 years two species have become extinct.

There are a further six species which have been named as priorities for protection in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Only six species of bumblebee are still common, the rest have all declined to varying degrees.

The reason for the decline is the removal of the bees’ habitat – hedges have gone, marshes have been drained and more than 97 per cent of managed flower-rich grasslands have disappeared.

Yet many crops, especially fruit and vegetables, depend on bumblebees for pollination and in total the value of Europe’s insect pollinators is estimated at

£11.4 billion.

Two years ago, Edinburgh was chosen as one of four UK cities to help find a way to reintroduce bee species. Honeybees have been on Earth for 30m years. They evolved to make honey for the colony to feed on, however, European honeybees were later bred specifically to make excess honey for human consumption.

Honey bees carefully control the temperature within their hives, fanning their wings to cool it down while “heater bees” use muscles to heat their tiny bodies like living radiators to keep a hive warm. The heater bees help determine which role young bees go on to perform. Those kept slighter warmer become more intelligent forager bees, ones kept a degree cooler turn out to be housekeeper bees.