Saturday, September 6, 2008


November 29, 2007

In last week’s column I pointed out how unrelated Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie is to actual honeybee biology and sociology. He and his storyboarders have surely seen as many nature films on honeybees as their children have, and even helped them with their homework on bees in their natural science and ecology classes. It’s not that they were ignorant, it’s just that they had this funny idea about a bunch of guys bucking the system and saving the planet, and decided to dress them up in bee suits. Plus, they had all those wretched old bee-puns they thought were too damned hilarious to keep to themselves.

There’s nothing new in turning bees into tiny people. Almost from the beginning of thought, human beings have regarded the beehive as an image of what their own society is or could be, a natural model of public life and private virtue.

In ancient Greece and Rome, beekeeping had already become something of an industry. Colonies were hived in clay vessels and in hollowed-out logs and carted from orchard to orchard to pollinate plants and yield different-flavored honeys. And although beekeepers got their honey by gouging it out of the hive much as bears do, they learned a great deal about bee society in the process. In the fourth century B.C., the philosopher and natural scientist Aristotle wrote extensively and quite accurately about honeybees. The Roman poet Virgil was fascinated by these insects; his father was a professional beekeeper with hundreds of hives. In his Latin verse treatise on agriculture, The Georgics, he describes honeybee society as ruled by a "king" whose "one Will keeps all the bees secure." "He is the guardian of their labor," he wrote. "They all admire him and surround him, roaring deeply. They crowd around him and often lift him on their shoulders. They throw their bodies down in war, and through their wounds seek a beautiful death."

He wrote those words in the first century B.C., during the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar. Is there any connection?

In medieval Europe, honeybees became icons of the spiritual life. It was generally known that all the worker bees are female, but it was impossible to determine for certain just how they reproduced. Most authorities asserted that they generated offspring asexually, becoming fertile by eating the pollen of flowers and regurgitating it as baby bees. One chant from eleventh-century Milan, used at the liturgy to praise the Easter candle, puts it more poetically: "They conceive by mouth and give birth by mouth; with a chaste body, not from foul desire, they copulate. Then, preserving their virginity, they generate offspring. They are called mothers, but they remain intact; they generate children but do not know husbands." A similar chant from Rome proclaims: "O truly marvelous bee, whose sex the male does not violate nor the fetus shatter, nor does bearing children destroy her chastity! It is just as holy Mary conceived as a virgin, gave birth as a virgin, and remained a virgin."

This charming view of honeybee life eroded during the Renaissance and Reformation. Scientists eventually discovered that the queen bee, hardly chaste, mates with multiple drones and produces all the offspring of the colony. Still, writers could not resist political allegory, however far-fetched. Protestants enlisted the bees into their anti-Catholic screeds; a 17th-century Flemish pamphlet, The Beehive of the Romish Church, shows the pope as king-bee living inside his own (beehive-shaped) papal tiara, exacting honey-money from his apian bishops, priests, monks and peasants.

In 1609, an English cleric, Charles Butler, published The Feminine Monarchie, an ode to the late Virgin Queen Elizabeth: "We must not call the Queen ‘Rex’; the Bee-state is an amazonian or feminine kingdom," he wrote in his preface.

As political and economic theory developed in Enlightenment Britain, bees were often employed either as exemplars or as foils. In 1705, an expatriate Dutchman, Bernard de Mandeville, wrote The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn’d Honest, a pamphlet in verse whose invisible-hand thesis presaged and perhaps influenced Adam Smith’s. The bees in a colony all work for themselves; when the gods suddenly make them altruistic, the entire economy of the hive collapses. He summarized the moral of his story thus: "Then leave complaints: Fools only strive / To make a Great, an Honest Hive. / To enjoy the world’s Conveniencies (sic), / Be fam’d in War, yet live in Ease, / Without great Vices, is a vain / Eutopia seated in the Brain."
The examples are endless, but one last one may be relevant to our present political debate: the pervasive image of the beehive in the Mormon Church. Founder Joseph Smith took the bee (which the Book of Mormon names deseret) as the central symbol of his new community of Latter-Day Saints. When his successor Brigham Young settled the land that would become Utah, he called it Deseret, and Mormon temples are lavishly adorned with beehive carvings to this day. In 1881, Salt Lake City’s newspaper, the Deseret News, described the beehive as "a significant representation of the industry, harmony, order and frugality of the people, and of the sweet results of their toil, union, and intelligent cooperation." You may wonder if Mitt Romney has any thoughts on the subject.

Honeybee society has rarely been seen by humans as a democracy, though much recent research indicates that in nature it is not the queen that makes the crucial decisions in the colony but the collective sense of the workers themselves: They are the ones who apportion the various hive duties, regulate the temperature inside the hive, and decide when to replace a failing queen.
Bees, we must suppose, do not choose their form of government. They are meticulously ruled by a genetic code shaped and constantly modified by two million years of experience. It is interesting to speculate just how much human social and political structures, so comparatively late in coming, are driven by our own genes.

Move over, Seinfeld. More fascinating, and substantive, bee stories are surely on the way.

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