Schlepping around the Flowers

James Meek

  • The Hive: The Story of the Honey-Bee and Us by Bee Wilson
    Murray, 308 pp, £14.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 7195 6409 3

Not long after the First World War, the movie baron Samuel Goldwyn set up a stable of Eminent Authors in an attempt to give silent screenplays more literary weight. One of the recruits was the Nobel Prize-winning Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck. Initially, neither party seems to have been troubled that Maeterlinck spoke no English, and the great Belgian set to work on a screen version of his novel La Vie des abeilles. When the script was translated Goldwyn read it with increasing consternation until he could no longer deny the evidence of his senses. ‘My God!’ he cried. ‘The hero is a bee!

As Ian Hamilton tells it in Writers in Hollywood, Maeterlinck was sent packing, despite his attempt to improve his output by watching movies for the first time. The hero of The Hive is not a bee; it is beedom, the generality of bees – or commune, or republic, or kingdom, or queendom, or tyranny, or feudal paradise, or any of the other human polities through whose prism observers have studied the lives of these industrious social insects. The armature of the book is the history of a metaphor: how, while bees have carried out their business in the same way for millions of years, human thinkers and dreamers have persisted in trying to cast them as the embodiment of whichever society those people value or fear the most. Without the bees ever being aware of it, humans have made them prophets, moralists and role models, as well as, at various times, chaste, socialist, godly, merciful, obedient, loving and slavish. Our fascination with that seeming town in miniature, the bee colony – the architecture, the labour, the allocation of tasks, the hierarchy, the intelligence apparently at work – is evidence of a desire both to find patterns in nature devised by a deity whose plan we can understand, and to magnify our own place in that creation. We tend to be most aware of bees when we’re lounging around in the garden on a hot summer’s day, and their busyness contrasts with our idleness; as Bee Wilson says, we do so admire the bees’ industriousness in schlepping around the flowers, hauling the sweet stuff back and toiling away in the hive. And then we steal their honey.

Virgil admired the politics of the hive, with its ‘great-hearted leaders, a whole nation whose work is planned’, and saw, in the annual death of the drones in winter, a well-functioning society purging itself of its laziest members. In ancient Egypt there was a bee hieroglyph which meant both ‘Egypt’ and ‘king’. Seneca tried to persuade Nero of the virtue of clemency by pointing out, incorrectly, that the ‘king’ bee had no sting. That Nero ignored his advice to the extent of ordering Seneca to commit suicide only underlines the gravity of the contexts in which bee metaphors were deployed.

Writers have always constructed models of the hive according to their prejudices and organisational requirements, even as contemporaries propagated rival bee visions. There have usually been, at any one time, both radical hives – bees embodying the urge to create particular human utopias – and conservative hives: bees reflecting the desirability of the existing human order. Or, indeed, stranger bifurcations. In medieval Europe, monastic orders saw beehives as being like themselves: organised, co-operative and, most important, chaste. (It was thought at the time that, however new bees came into the world, it had nothing to do with sex.) Monks and nuns saw in the hive not only vindication of their own vows but assurance that a product vital to their rituals – beeswax, for candles – was, in every sense, pure. Other thinkers of the time said that the most important characteristic of the medieval hive was fealty, not piety or chastity. The 13th-century bestiary of Bartholomew spoke of a ‘king bee’ being waited on and defended by serf bees, esquire bees and knight bees, and going forth from the hive only in the company of a swarm of vassal bees. The king bee was evidently superior to the other bees because it was bigger.

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