Life is sweet

Even in the bleak post-industrial dereliction of the Thames waterside through North Woolwich and Beckton, life is still sweet. Mr Tate may have given us art galleries of repute, but his partner Mr Lyle gave us a giant tin of golden syrup the size of a Transit Van.

Abram Lyle would be pleased at his architectural legacy. What, I wonder would he have made at the pretence to metrication — by the relabelling of his 2 lb tins as 907 grams?

This is the surreal view from West Silvertown station on the Docklands Light Railway, showing the Tate & Lyle factory, one of the few remaining commercial premises still working in the area. According to the Tate & Lyle website, Abram Lyle started selling off the previously waste syrup created during the sugar refining process in 1883, first in wooden casks to employees, but in tins to the general public from 1885.

If you click on the photo and enlarge it, you can make out the lion and the quotation from Judges (Chapter 14, Verse 14): “…out of the strong came forth sweetness.” This, of course, is the insect link on which I will now dwell. The lion is dead, and the speckles above it are supposed to be honeybees; the story just keeps getting stranger.

The words are spoken by Samson, to some truculent in-laws (‘uncircumcised Philistines’), at his wedding. It is a riddle, on which hangs the wager of Samson receiving 30 bed-sheets and 30 sets of clothes or, if he loses, having to provide them for his guests. He’s remembering some time before when he killed a young lion with his bare hands and, walking past a short while later, he noticed a swarm of bees in the carcass. The full riddle is: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness”. Meat, in that archaic sense of anything edible, was, of course, the honey.

Needless to say, the Philistines had no idea what he was on about, until they convinced his fiancée to wheedle it out of him before the full 7 days of the wedding bet were up. Not best pleased about being answered in so sly a manner, Samson berates them that they only got the answer by ploughing with his heifer wife. An interesting, but rather harsh analogy I thought. He then went off and killed 30 locals, stripping them of their spoil to settle his debt of wager. Grim reading it all makes. I doubt the marriage lasted.

Of course, if an entomologist had been on hand, the whole thing would have been sorted in a trice. The notion of the oxen-born bee, the spontaneous appearance of bees in ox carcasses, prevailed for thousands of years. In Greek mythology Aristaeus was in big trouble with Eurydice’s nymphs; she’d trodden on a snake and been bitten, as she tried to escape his amorous attentions, so the nymphs killed all his bees. He had to appease them by sacrificing four bulls and four heifers. Nine days of putrefaction later, bees miraculously spewed out of the dead animals. Killing a bullock by blocking its mouth and nostrils and bludgeoning it to death, then leaving it to ferment until its bones were softened, was widely accepted as a useful bit of bee husbandry until at least the middle of the 17th century. The blocking of its nose and throat was to prevent the animal’s soul leaving its body — that was destined to enter the resultant bees.

Strange though this thinking may seem to modern minds, there is an element of potential true observation in what was supposedly being reported. If an animal carcass if left to rot, it attracts the usual swathe of carrion insects. Blowflies and burying beetles come early, but when it gets to the semi-liquid putrefaction stage it attracts a hoverfly.

Adult and early stages of Eristalis tenax, plate 1 from 'The natural history of Eristalis tenax or the drone fly' by George Bowdler Buckton, 1895.

Eristalis tenax is a large brown and orange hoverfly; in English it is the drone-fly, so called because of its close resemblance to a male honeybee, a drone (larger eyes than the colony’s female workers). Eristalis  normally lays its eggs in the rotting soup of dead leaves in hedgerow ditches, farmyard drains fouled by animal sewage run-off, and the stinking mud of stagnant woodland pools. And it will, on occasion, also oviposit in the rank gelatinous slime of putrescent meat. Its rat-tailed maggots get their name from the long tail-like breathing siphon on the rear end, which they use to take draughts of air from the water surface whilst they are nibbling their way through the smelly gloop at the bottom of the mirk. This, it turns out, is the oxen-born ‘bee’.

Quite what Abram Lyle was thinking when he designed or commissioned his famous tins is now rather lost to conjecture. Like many Victorian gentlemen of the time he was reputedly a deeply religious man, and he may have seen it as representing the strength of the Lyle company or brand. Or could it have been a clever marketing ploy? Today he would certainly not have got away with calling his artificially produced sweet golden liquor anything to do with honey, or even be allowed to reproduce that symbol of all things sweet and natural and wholesomely industrious — a honeybee — on the label. Yet his tins still proclaim that biblical honey link, even if the supposed bees are now really flies.

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