Chapter 1 – If Bees Could Read
‘Bees don’t read the books’ is one of our favourite aphorisms when things happen in the hive that run contrary to our expectations. We can only be happy for the sake of the bees that this is true. Instead of getting on with life, literate bees would have spent the last two millennia in total gender confusion. In his treatise on beekeeping (first century AD) Virgil claimed bees to be living a perfect chaste life. The theory went that bees reproduce asexually, a characteristic that associated them in the middle ages with the Virgin Mary. This turned out to be very convenient for the nuns who were happy to keep bees and the monks who were happy to eat their products, safe in the knowledge that nothing untoward of a physical nature sullied the honey for their toast, or the obligatory beeswax – symbol of the body of Christ – for their candles.
Bees henceforth came to represent a model of perfection in civil and social organisation, and out of convenience the theory went unchallenged for some time. Elements of class crept into the hive when a single large bee was mistakenly described as the king bee, the ruler of the hive, with an assumed second large bee who was his queen and mother to all the babies without having anything to do with their production or nurturing – it would have been beneath her to have behaved in such a disgusting way – all that was done by the worker bees! It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that it was suggested that the king bee was female and laid all the eggs, and the seventeenth that all the workers were female. One twentieth-century commentator made the claim that, had the truth about the gender of the bees never been discovered, women would never have thought of campaigning for the vote. Hummmm!
Buzzin’ around your hive
Probably as well for the bees that they don’t listen to rock music either, as the myth of the king bee as perpetuated in the twentieth century by Muddy Waters, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead among others, swept away any lingering pretensions of chastity the bees might have been holding on to. Sting you bad ….
The nearest thing to a king bee in the hive are the drones of course, who in high season hang around in a region in the sky called the ‘drone congregation area’, the image of which can only conjure up P G Wodehouse’s ‘Drone’s Club’ with Bertie Wooster and his chums Gussie Fink-Nottle, Stilton Cheesewright and the others, haplessly hanging out there on summer days amusing themselves by throwing bread rolls at each other until they are bagged by some random female. In fact the way Bertie and co. behave towards women in their circle seems to be to avoid them as much as possible, sensible in view of the fact that the real drones who get lucky enough to mate with the queen die after the event.
The surviving drones, however, are only tolerated in the hive until early autumn when they are ousted by the workers. The workers (female as we now know), who don’t want to have to feed them all winter, usher them out of the hive with the matter of fact briskness of Bertie’s Aunt Agatha, often giving their wings a good chewing on the way to make sure they get the message. The king bee, if he existed, would probably find himself getting the bum’s rush along with the drones since his bogus talents would no longer be required.
Queen bee syndrome and other allusions
So the king bee is no more than a symbol of male arrogance, strutting his stuff in a parallel universe, while the queen bee does all the work. Should she ever have the time, energy or vanity to Google herself she would find that she achieves over 7 million hits. Should she go further she will find that she is the mother of all bees, and that she also has a syndrome to her name which is applied to that powerful competitive (but insecure) upper management office ‘beeatch’, who needs to block the progress of the female minions in the office/hive. A queen bee is also the good looking manipulative leader of school cliques, the members of which will victimise and cast out the ones she dislikes. (How unlike the homelife…. )
But back to our fecund queen bee who returns from her (one and only) outing to take up permanent residence in the hive where she is reputed by Joe public to lead the life of Mrs Riley, pampered and pandered to by workers. Au contraire, as we beekeepers know, the queen, after her brief excursion to the drone layer up there in the sky pays for her fun by being hive bound for anything up to five years, laying up to 2 (some say 3) thousand eggs a day in high season. After that, when her pheromones begin to weaken, she will be unceremoniously ejected from the hive either by the (female) workers who have created another queen, or by the evil beekeeper who replaces her, often squishing her unceremoniously between finger and thumb, to maximise profits. (and yes, many of these are wimmin). The power of hormones should never be underestimated.
Whatever the reality, the fascination with the mysterious hive and the supposed qualities of the bee community have been construed by humans over the centuries in many other ways. In the political sphere, the beehive was claimed as truly republican in 18th century France, perfectly socialist in England in the late 19th, and later, in the 20th century, was seen as a totalitarian regime with an all-powerful queen as head supported by a Stasi-like team of workers, policing the colony and executing interlopers and wrongdoers. But more of that in my next chapter….
Maeterlink. Maurice, The Life of The Bee (Cambridge: CUP, 1995 ed.).
Hooper, Ted, Guide to Bees and Honey (Poole, Dorset: Blandford, 1976).
Preston, Claire, Bee (London, Reaktion Books, 2006).
Virgil, Georgics – Book IV Beekeeping (Apiculture) various translations and websites, see http://www.poetryintranslation.com
Wilson, Bee, The Hive (London: John Murray, 2004).
Maggy Hendry is a freelance writer and editor and a beekeeper based in Canterbury.