Sunday, June 05, 2011


He that would exactly discern the shop of a Bees mouth, need observing eyes, and good augmenting glasses; wherein is discoverable one of the neatest pieces in nature, and must have a more piercing eye then mine;  
 -Garden of Cyrus  chap. 3

There's a wealth of literature and religious symbolism  inspired by the  bee. The furry, flying insect is held in great esteem throughout the world despite its sting. Unlike the ant which invariably is likened to the robotic world of  automata, the bee has always been viewed as a hard-working  insect capable of altruism and self-sacrifice for the greater collective  good of the hive. Often used as a symbol of moral worth and integrity, the busy bee appeals greatly to the work-ethic of Protestantism.

The ancient Egyptians described   Pharaoh as He of  the Sedge  and Bee and  used honey as an effective contraceptive. In the Old Testament the story of Samson and the supernatural 'power' of honey can be found. (Judges 14:v.8). The Hebrew word for bee, dbure has the same root as  dbr meaning  'word'

In Classical antiquity bees were often depicted upon tombs as symbols of Resurrection; because the three month winter season when bees seemed to vanish was compared to the three days after the Crucifixion, only to reappear in Spring as if resurrected. In fact until the modern Industrial age, honey was  not only greatly valued as the only available source of sweetness but is also  the one and only food-stuff which  can never 'go off' and is incorruptible.

Bees have also symbolized eloquence, poetry and the mind. The Roman poet Virgil attributed the spark of divine intelligence to them. His fourth book of Georgics contains advice upon how to keep bees. Virgil's poem, over 500 lines long was for centuries one of the best-known works  of apiculture and how best care for  bees.

They alone hold children in common: own the roofs
of their city as one: and pass their life under the might of the law.
They alone know a country, and a settled home,
and in summer, remembering the winter to come,
undergo labour, storing their gains for all.
For some supervise the gathering of food, and work
in the fields to an agreed rule: some, walled in their homes,
lay the first foundations of the comb, with drops of gum
taken from narcissi, and sticky glue from tree-bark,
then hang the clinging wax: others lead the mature young,
their nation’s hope, others pack purest honey together,
and swell the cells with liquid nectar:
there are those whose lot is to guard the gates,
and in turn they watch out for rain and clouds in the sky,
or accept the incoming loads, or, forming ranks,
they keep the idle crowd of drones away from the hive. 
Bk 4 lines 153-169

Because the bee-hive has a radically different social organization to humankind's, bees and the hive have often been used as analogies to human society. Writers such as Shakespeare, Erasmus, Marx and Tolstoy each used the hive to describe human social organization. In his The Fable of the Bees (1714) the political thinker Bernard Mandeville argued that any distribution of wealth, even by theft, fraud and prostitution keeps the wheels of capital rolling and is thus legitimate. However his views were strongly condemned by  contemporaries as immoral.

Of all the varied literature relating to the bee that of the Belgian author and Nobel-prize winner, Maurice Maeterlinck's Life of the Bee (1901) is perhaps the most mystical. In Maeterlinck's work, contemplation of  the bee's life-cycle  and the hive rises to hymn-like heights of rapture. More recently the Swedish author Lars Gustafsson's novel The Death of a Beekeeper (1991) is a first person meditation by a Beekeeper suffering from advanced Cancer upon the imminent approach of death. 

Returning to bee-keeping itself,  'even though as early as the 1530s it was well known that the male drones were sometimes obstacles to honey production, most writers on bees for the purposes of their labor/religious/political metaphors kept the King a King.  However it was known that the queen bee was a female at least since the C17th century. Charles Butler's Feminine Monarchie popularized the notion, and was also the first work to stray from the usual methods towards bees and beekeeping of repeating ancient sources on the subject, and offer something like practical, even scientific treatment. Butler even scores the buzzing of the bees to music'.[1]

The buzzing sound of the bee, in effect its song, has fascinated musicians and composers. The bee is celebrated in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Flight of the Bumblebee, an interlude from his opera The Tale of Tsar Sultan. Its salutary to realise that although Rimsky-Korsakov wrote many operas often of  several hours length, his miniature tone-poem of seventy seconds is the work for which he is best remembered. More recently the British composer Michael Nyman wrote a short concerto for Saxophone and orchestra entitled  Where the Bee dances in which the  melodic line played by the Saxophone  imitates the joyous, zig-zagging flight of the bee.

Thomas Browne's Religio Medici includes a poem of highly original apian imagery; the poet imagining himself  a bee.

And then at last, when homeward I shall drive
Rich with the spoils of nature to my hive,
There will I sit, like that industrious fly,
Buzzing thy praises, which shall never die
Till death abrupts them, and succeeding glory
Bid me go on in a more lasting story.
- R.M. Part 1:13

In fact mention of bees occurs in each of Browne's major works. Abandoning poetry,  his Pseudodoxia Epidemica includes a lengthy digression upon why the bee produces a buzzing sound (Bk.3. chap.27). Browne, rather bravely writes of placing a finger upon a bee in order to determine its buzz. Elsewhere in his writing's there's a curious record, purely in the cause of scientific investigation, of Browne actually eating spiders and bees to determine their culinary and dietary effects, while in Urn-Burial he notes  bee's  funeral rites, ejecting its dead out of the hive.

Because scientific enquiry was invariably  patriarchal in its thinking, it was assumed  that the Hive was ruled by a male;  not until the nineteenth century was it finally accepted that a female Queen, not a male King rules the hive. The construction of the hive has been a source of wonderment to many, not least to  Sir T.B. who in  The Garden of Cyrus waxes lyrical upon its architecture thus-

The sexangular Cels in the Honeycombs of Bees, are disposeth after this order, much there is not of wonder in the confused Houses of Pismires, though much in their busy life and actions, more in the edificial Palaces of Bees and Monarchical spirits; who make their combs six-cornered, declining a circle, whereof many stand not close together, and completely fill the area of the place; But rather affecting a six-sided figure, whereby every cell affords a common side unto six more, and also a fit receptacle for the Bee it self, which gathering into a Cylindrical Figure, aptly enters its sexangular house, more nearly approaching a circular Figure, then either doth the Square or Triangle. And the Combs themselves so regularly contrived, that their mutual intersections make three Lozenges at the bottom of every Cell; which severally regarded make three Rows of neat Rhomboidal Figures, connected at the angles, and so continue three several chains throughout the whole comb.

The bee is an insect now included in the ever-growing inventory of endangered species upon planet Earth. It's recent decline is a matter of great concern. Without bee's ability to pollinate, crops would not grow. In fact humanity's fate is dependent upon the bee. The Varroa mite along with the phenomena known as 'Hive collapse disorder' in which swarms simply vanish, has decimated whole colonies. In recent decades pesticides, along with motor-car exhaust fumes and mobile phone signals have also been blamed for the bee's decline . In fact the plight of the modern-day bee wherever industrial-sized fruit-crop growing occurs, has been likened to  many working hives being over-crowded upon a budget air-line for a long over-night flight, only to be awakened upon arrival without any acclimatization, to a long day's labour immediately upon landing. Needless to say such treatment is motivated purely by economic factors.

The above photo is one of my best snaps. I particularly like how the  bee's furriness and  transparency of its wings is captured.

[1]  Info contribution by Brooke
 Fable of the Bees
Virgil's Georgics IV
Flight of the Bumblebee


Brooke said...


Thanks for checking out my blog and commenting, and it must be some kindof divine providence that I would peek at yours and find the first entry the subject of bees, near and dear to my heart.

If you're ever in the Philadelphia area, definitely swing on over to Upenn's rare book library and check out Francis Daniel Pastorius's "Beehive'(something I spent the better portion of my time there studying-- MS Codex 726) it's a commonplace book of thousands of entries and a total devotion to bee-like industry in poetry throughout. He kept it between 1696-1719, from his settlement in Germantown, Phildelphia. I could talk about it all day but I won't....

Just a point of fact: it was known that the queen bee was a female at least since the C17th-- in English Charles Butler's Feminine Monarchie popularized the notion, and was also the first work to stray from the usual methods towards bees and beekeeping (a la Gesner, Hyll) of repeating ancient sources on the subject, and offer something like practical, even scientific treatment.

TWo extra fun points about this really amazing book: Butler even scores the buzzing of the bees to music (it's the first book printed in Oxford with music). Also check out the 3rd (1634) edition, which Butler has published in his own 'phonetic' and 'economic' way of writing the English language (he experimented with linguistics as well and wrote a grammar).

But that doesn't mean everyone changed their pronouns all at once. In fact, most writers on bees for the purposes of their labor/religious/political metaphors kept the King a King. And, despite that even earlier along in the 1530s it was well known that the male drones were sometimes obstacles to honey production, this fact was often skipped over. Even Hyll suggests that beekeepers would do well to kill the mail drones once an autumn, sine during the winter they waste space. Topsell has a bit on bees in his Historie of Serpents trying to skirt around the fact that:

"...the greatest company of learned
Writers do distinguish them: whereof they make the feminine sort to be the greater. Others again will have them the lesser with a sting: but the sounder sort (in my judgment) will neither know nor acknowledge any other males but their Dukes and Princes, who are more able & handsome, greater and stronger than any of the rest, who stay ever at home .. ."

Later in the century, Jan Swammerdam dissected a 'king' be to show its ovaries and settle that dispute.

Hydriotaphia said...

Well hi Brook and thanks for your generous comments on my post. I shall amend my mistakes and with your permission may even add a sentence or two of your expert knowledge of apiculture. Have you read the Maurice Materlinck book, i suspect you have if such a scholar upon bees. If only people understood how important bees are to the balance of the planet's ecology and well-being . Always interested in tales of serendipity, so thanks for mentioning your encounter with my post. Once again thanks for the specialist and technical information on apiculture, its much appreciated. I see urban bee-keeping is becoming popular in USA, are you by any chance a bee-keeper ?

Laurie M. said...

I'm no kind of expert on bees (or anything else, for that matter) but I find them to be pleasant, peaceful, and industrious, and have been quite concerned about the local dwindling of their populations in our area. They seem to have fared better this spring. I'm seeing them in abundance for the first time in a while.

I might also add that I've never been stung! I came close as a child when one landed in my hair. As I brushed it off I felt the thing on my thumb and quickly shook it off. Thankfully it left its stinger in the thick callous of my thumb which it could not penetrate. I'm hoping I can live the rest of my life never having been stung.

Brooke said...

Yeah, use all you like! The more folks write about bees the better, and I'm sure discussion of them a as longstanding cultural icon can only enhance awareness of their environmental impact...

I WISH I were a beekeeper. At the moment I'm in London, although I actually have met a few beekeepers and, gasp, have even donned the garb and hung out around the beeboxes. Only ONCE tho'.

My hero Pastorius was so obsessed with bees that later in life he took to beekeeping, buying two hives and multiplying them to six in around a year's someday I'd like to practice what I preach/take the scholarly trope to a new level/etc. and try it myself for REAL.

Hydriotaphia said...

Okay Brooke with your consent I have squeezed in a paragraph and named you as its source. I really think that with such a passion you ought to follow your dream and keep bees sometime in your life, or at least don the protective garb and assist other beekeepers. Urban beekeeping is the future ! Thanks.