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.

Wilson has tracked the model of the hive as perceived by English intellectuals, mutating according to the monarch and the orthodox political philosophy of the day. At the time of James I, Charles Butler put aside the beginnings of scientific rigour to delude himself that he saw bees in his hives with tufts, tassels and plumes according to their rank in the bee court. During the Protectorate, a government-subsidised book by Samuel Hartlib appeared called The Reformed Common-Wealth of Bees, as if within every British hive, the bloated sovereign bee had been taken off to buzz its last buzz on some dismal apian scaffold. With the Restoration, Charles II’s personal bee master, Moses Rusden, wrote A Further Discovery of Bees, redefining the relationship between the ‘king bee’ and the insects as that of absolute monarch to his unworthy subjects. The growing awareness that the ‘king bee’ was female coincided fortuitously with the reign of Queen Anne, enabling one Joseph Warder to publish, in 1712, his fawning book, The True Amazons, or The Monarchy of Bees: ‘I cannot but wish,’ he wrote, ‘that all your Majesty’s subjects were as unanimously loyal as the subjects of the Queen Bee, in whose Nature there is so strongly (as well as strangely) plac’d a Principle of Obedience.’

Awareness of the keystone bee’s probable femininity had begun to seep in much earlier, in the late 16th century, and alongside efforts to make bee governance conform to rightful human types was a debate – carried out, so far as Wilson has been able to cite, entirely by men – about the role of the queen. Again, faithful observation gave way to dogmatic reinterpretation whenever the hive challenged conventional wisdom. An early 17th-century expert, Richard Remnant, contended that beekeepers could use their knowledge of queen bees to control women. Butler was forced to accept the existence of the queen but frothed: ‘Let no nimble-tongued sophisters gather a false conclusion from these true premises.’ In a work of 1744, The Female Monarchy, John Thorley was as repelled by the idea of the queen bee being an exemplar to women as Warder had been delighted to compare the queen bee to Queen Anne. He abominated the notion then gaining ground that the drones might have sex with the queen. She was chaste, he insisted, and not a ‘common prostitute, a base, notorious, impudent strumpet, the most hateful and abominable whore with gallants by the hundreds’. It was left to an 18th-century French poet, Jacques Vanière, to portray a queen bee who was wise, efficient, beautiful and a delightedly promiscuous lover.

For republicans and socialists, the hive seemed to provide not only a vindication of their ideal future society – co-operation, sharing, mutual defence – but a means by which they could couch their radical rhetoric in a homely disguise. There were workers’ papers in France and Britain in the mid-19th century called, respectively, the People’s Beehive and the Bee-Hive. Charles Fourier, the French travelling salesman turned utopian socialist, even saw in the hive a prophecy of a future as rich as honey and bright as a wax-candle flame, working as harmoniously as a bee colony foraging for nectar. Those hostile to socialism and Communism came to turn the metaphor against its sponsors, portraying the hive as the worst kind of totalitarian, utilitarian slave-state, its inhabitants brainwashed to carry out mindless, repetitive tasks unquestioningly from birth to death. The analogy remains popular: Wilson cites a recent article in Nature – nobody loves to anthropomorphise animals like a 21st-century scientist – describing the bee colony as ‘the most advanced insect police state so far discovered’.

In 1714, Bernard de Mandeville, a Dutchman living in London, achieved a remarkable satirical treble with The Fable of the Bees: ‘the most celebrated book about bees and politics ever written’, Wilson calls it. He mocked the human society around him; he outraged contemporaries by subverting the traditional view of the hive as a paradigm of selfless labour for the common good; and, by not even pretending that his hive bore any resemblance to the real thing, he laughed at the absurdity of the whole bee metaphor. Mandeville’s bees are greedy, amoral individuals whose society is kept going only by their disregard for honesty and their desire to consume as many luxuries as possible. In his human hive, even less like a real bee colony than those depicted by his contemporaries, Mandeville foresaw the future of European society most accurately. As Hobbes pointed out, bees are only insects; politics, a means human beings have devised to mediate between the individual and the group, is surplus to their requirements.

The Hive is one of those books that mine two thousand years, give or take a millennium, of written scholarship to show the utter centrality to our wellbeing of some thing, some fish or insect or chemical or system of measurement, whose easy availability we carelessly take for granted. Such books are to be recognised by their dainty size in hardback, the especially tactile cream paper on which they are printed, and the collage of historical images adorning the cover (The Hive has some particularly pretty bees picked out in gold). The reader can be certain that in the course of the book they will encounter some, and often all, of the following elements: an invitation to imagine the utter bleakness of a world without said thing; the story of a noble soul who died bitter because of his contemporaries’ refusal to recognise his breakthrough in advancing the understanding of said thing; some lovely reproductions of pre-photographic engravings (The Hive is strong in this respect); recipes; examples of the poetic ignorance of the ancient Greeks, the pragmatic ignorance of the ancient Romans, the malevolent ignorance of the medieval Church and the superstitious ignorance of the peasantry about said thing; a dogged Victorian; an eccentric Midwesterner; and a mad Frenchman.

None of this is necessarily bad. It provides an alternative to the wars-and-leaders or the clash-of-interest-groups version of history, and is seldom dull. But it isn’t necessarily coherent, either. Sometimes the writers have to stretch their subject over the frame too tightly, and it breaks. ‘How would human beings ever have made love to each other, without honey and bees to help them?’ Wilson asks on page 59. Is that a rhetorical question? Because if not, I have my hand up. Only a few pages earlier she points out that American Indians didn’t know the honey-bee until ‘the white man’s fly’ was brought from across the ocean.

If I suggest that The Hive and books like it often resemble the results of an internet search, it’s not to impugn the depth and breadth of Wilson’s researches, or the wit and amiability of her writing. It is just that a search under ‘bee’ and ‘honey’ can go off in all sorts of directions, and this book goes off in most of them. In the course of The Hive we learn, among many other things, that 16 of the 50 US states have adopted the honey-bee as their official state insect; that Mormon leader Brigham Young lived with 13 wives in a building called Beehive House; that numerous cases of wax-doll curses cropped up in British courts in medieval times; that Madame Tussaud was born Marie Grosholtz; that Pope Urban VIII changed the horseflies on his family coat of arms to bees; that mead doesn’t taste very nice; that Alexander the Great may have been mummified in honey, but then again he may not; that honey from bees which have been foraging in rhododendron flowers is poisonous; and that oxymel, a mixture of honey, water and vinegar, was said by one writer to be ‘good to gargarise with in a squinancy’. Wilson adds: ‘Whatever that means.’ One of the dangers of cramming your book with so many diverse facts, of course, is that readers will be annoyed if anything is missed out. I hoped for tips on how to get a spoonful of honey out of the jar without it dribbling. I was disappointed.

Amid the swarm of things you didn’t know about bees, the history of the hive as metaphor is a kind of queen fact. Another is the history of humanity’s growing understanding of what really happens in the hive. It was once thought – to the point that innumerable books gave step-by-step practical advice on how to do it – that bees could be generated from the corpse of an ox by a process known as ‘bugonia’. One guide instructed beemakers to beat the ox to death, lay it on a heap of thyme in an enclosed space, stop the openings with mud, and leave the ox to rot for a month. Bees would then appear.

Wilson recounts the breakthroughs of the obsessed individuals who have studied bees at work over the centuries, to the point that few mysteries remain inside the hive. Each colony, we now know, has one long-lived queen bee, the only fully female insect among them. The 50,000 workers, who live for six weeks, are virtually sterile females; the drones are male. Just once, in her life of up to six years, the queen will leave the hive to mate in flight. About a dozen drones will impregnate her, dying as a result (the rest die soon afterwards), and the queen returns to the colony carrying the broken-off genitals of her lovers and enough sperm to last her for the rest of her life. She spins out the remaining years laying eggs, slurping royal jelly secreted from the heads of her attendants and passing hormonal instructions to the hive via workers’ tongues. It is, we assume, most unlike the home life of our own dear queen.

The workers’ jobs are allocated according to seniority. They start out as cleaners and guards; move on to being nannies and personal servants to the queen; then, in succession, waxmakers and honeycomb builders, pollen warehousers, honeymakers, honey reducers (the honey is thickened by the bees flapping their wings over it to evaporate water), and finally foragers for nectar, pollen and resin, which bees use for glue. In a single day, a worker might visit ten thousand flowers. When she finds a new source of nectar, she performs an extraordinarily precise dance on her return to the hive to tell the other bees how to find it. The effort is enormous, yet one worker bee, in her lifetime, will produce just one spoonful of honey. Or, to break it down into its constituent parts, a spoonful of nectar and bee spit.

There is a third strand that occasionally promises to break out through the fabric of the book, but never quite does so. Honey is generally seen as a good thing these days, as a healthy, wholesome food; and, like many healthy, wholesome foods, it has acquired an oddly cranky reputation, of being so healthy that it’s indicative of someone a degree too concerned about their health: something pallid singles in organic supermarkets moodily place in their baskets along with soya milk, rice cakes and tea-tree oil, before taking it home to spoon measured quantities into lukewarm cups of camomile tea. The third strand is about what has displaced honey: sugar.

Rousseau apparently argued that honey-eating nations were natural democracies, while sugar-eating nations were disposed to tyranny. Wilson admits that honey (which is 70 per cent sugar, 20 per cent water and 10 per cent two hundred other substances) is tougher to cook with than sugar; it is a sweet in itself, rather than good for making sweets. But the statistics are sobering. It is estimated that in the 12th century, the peak of honey consumption in England, people were eating two kilogrammes a year each, and negligible amounts of sugar from the Mediterranean. Today, the average annual honey consumption in Britain is 250 g per person, against 53 kg of sugar.

It is fascinating to learn from Wilson that most British honey is currently made from nectar gathered by bees from fields of rape and borage. ‘We are a nation,’ she writes, ‘whose honey is now largely a byproduct of cooking oil and premenstrual tension.’ But the commodity I find myself yearning to be shaken out of my complacency about as I come to the end of The Hive is the peculiar, addictive stuff we’re eating almost our body weight in every year, the sweet white tide that overwhelmed the bees, uprooted millions of Africans, costs European taxpayers a fortune in subsidies and is causing unknown damage to our metabolisms and those of our children.