Academic Book, Arthropods, Audubon Society Book of Insects and Arachnids, Bee, Bee Documentaries, Bee Hives, Bee Keepers, Bee Wilson, Bees, Book Review, Bugonia, history, honey, Human Beings Perception of Reality, Human Narcissim, Individual Will, Insects, Leo Tolstoy, Literature, Medieval Philosophy, mythology, Ovid, Philosophy, Science, Sexuality, The Hive, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, Virgil
I am unashamed whenever I confess that I am a nerd for bees.
My father’s a Pest Management Professional, which is the actual name for Exterminators just FYI, and so growing up I always had access to books about bugs, actual bug collections, and even slides (yes slides I am that old) that showed different types of arthropods and various facts about their anatomy. There was a brief period where my father worked for a small retail outlet and I remember the coolest part was spending hours just staring at the Mexican Red tarantula and the Emperor Scorpion. If it wasn’t these educational treats that made insects and arachnids so cool it was being the only kid in school who could identify different types of ants, spiders, and sometimes cockroaches that would stumble into the class rooms. I could tell the difference between a wolf spider and a brown recluse better than anyone and never understood why my classmates, who would often screech at the sight of a wolf spider the size of a dime, never took the time to learn the difference. There’s at least one book about insects and arthropods on every one of my bookshelves, and every night before bed I read a little bit from a DK book simply entitled Insects. This is just a long way of saying that there’s something about arthropods that I’ve always found fascinating.
Several months ago I went in for an official job interview at the library. I was technically interviewing for a job that I had been working as a temp for at least five months by then, and during the interview one of the questions was: “if you had to recommend a book to someone what would it be and how would you do it?” This was a bit of a joke since all of the supervisors knew me and knew that I was always reading something, or several
somethings, and I had actually brought two books with me to the interview. One of them, and I swear this isn’t me trying to be cute or clever, I’m never cute, was the Simon & Schustwer book of Insects, and the other was Bee Wilson’s The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us. I had picked the book up earlier in the week because one of my jobs in closing the place up is going around the second floor and looking over the shelves to find books people have left about. It’s far more common than the reader would think. People will often remove a book they have a passing interest in, and then rather than leaving it in designated places that are marked with signs they’ll just leave a book sitting on the shelf. I was looking through the hard sciences when I spotted a book I had seen in the card catalog before, and so being the bug-nut I decided to give it a try. I could honestly say to my bosses then, looking at the book, that I would recommend The Hive because I had never read a cultural history that was so well-written, so approachable, and a book that managed to pack every sentence and paragraphs with facts and never lose my interest.
I got the job and a week later I bought The Hive.
Wilson’s book is a cultural history which means rather than a chronological order or events, her method is to understand how the idea of bees has changed over time. Rather than just look at the methods ancient and modern peoples have used to raise and control bees her aim is deeper. Bees have evolved alongside human beings in a mutualistic relationship, and given the fact that human beings are meaning-making animals Wilson is able to show that bees have provided human beings with more than wax and honey. In fact, bees have inspired almost every level of society from politics, architecture, sexuality, food, agriculture, and economics. The bee has always been with mankind as a source of inspiration and so The Hive is an attempt to understand how that inspiration has worked and what ideas have developed from that inspiration.
And what better way to observe this than by looking at bugonia. Wilson explains this odd origin story for bees:
Perhaps the oldest of all the various theories about the origins of bees is the belief that, instead of generating themselves, bees were spontaneously fashioned out of the dead body of an ox. As the Latin poet Ovid (43 BC—AD 18) put it, ‘Swarms rush from the rotten ox; and one extinguished life produces a thousand.’ To us the theory that a dead ox could give birth to living bees seems frankly nuts. Yet this oddity did not prevent it from being an accepted explanation for existence of bees for more than 2,000 years. This was part of a reflection of the yearning of men to control these miraculous creatures, and thereby to control death itself. (71).
There’s obviously more to this, we’ll call it a notion because “bat-crap-crazy-idea” may be too harsh, but this paragraph is enough for me to demonstrate the appeal and strength of The Hive. This is one paragraph of the book and yet Wilson is able to name a concept, explain what it is, offer a quote which provides an examination of the idea, place it in contemporary perspective, and then offer the significance of the idea to humanity all while managing to write a paragraph that isn’t boring. Almost every paragraph of The Hive manages this same feat. And if it isn’t clear at this point that leaves me insanely jealous as a writer, but extraordinarily satisfied as a reader.
My regular reader may object, so what? Why should I bother reading a book that sounds like nothing but a lot of empty trivia about bees? I don’t even like bees, in fact I fuckin hate bees. They get in my soda and sting me. What’s relevant or useful about a pest?
It’s tempting then to suggest that the pure appeal of The Hive is the fact that the book is just an opportunity to collect lots of trivia about bees. For the record even if it was I would still recommend reading the book because as my opening suggests bees are fucking awesome. But more than just the empty trivia The Hive is a fascinating observation to observe how human beings have tried to understand their reality, and how knowledge develops.
One early passage in the book examines this as Wilson discusses early scholarship of bees:
The Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) was the main source for more or less everything written about bees until Renaissance times. In his pastoral poem the Georgics he realized the charms of beekeeping and bees. Virgil noticed that, on a blossom-scented spring day, different bees spent their days in different ways—some ‘busy in the fields’ and others ‘indoors’ gluing up combs. His theme was taken up again in the Middle Ages, when bee writers really developed the theme of how bees ivied up their labor. If we were to attach a reason to this we might say that the hive echoed in the feudal structure of medieval Europe, in which there were those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed—all of them sinners with an allotted role in God’s order which must not be questioned. In addition, medieval writers about animals were more unselfconsciously fanciful than their ancient counterparts. They were apt to see animals as hieroglyphs sent by God with moral lessons inside them for men. The whole world was composed of hidden messages, and everything held together as part of a single Creation. […] Everything meant something. (24).
I’ve observed in my writing lately that I keep repeating the same phrase over and over: humans are symbol making creatures. It’s becoming a theme, or maybe a running gag. Rather than worry about my developing mantra though I look at the quote I just provided and this statement feels perfectly relevant. If there is a message of The Hive it’s almost certainly that human beings are always looking around at their reality and trying to find some kind of self-reflective meaning in it. Whether it was the trees, lightning, flowers, mountains, or even something as minuscule as bees, humans observe their reality as something separate but at the same time as something that can inform them about their personal self and place in the universe.
Virgil was looking for the role of man in the universe as he pondered in the fields, and he found bees.
This passage says as much about human beings tendency to self-create as much as it does about scholarship though because as Wilson notes, the writers and scholars of the world were quite content to follow Virgil’s ponderings rather than try to observe new data. Now part of this has to be attributed to the incorrectly named “Dark Ages.” On one small tangent the only reason the Medieval period is referred to as the “dark ages” was because historians writing during the late renaissance and early Reformation period looked to the lack of political center and named it as such largely out of elitism. You can thank Petrarch mostly because he thought the period was not as “pretty” or “bright” as the classical ages. It’s important to note that because the Roman empire was crumbling internally at the time, and let’s be honest crumbling is a polite word for the steady festering that the empire suffered from, it became difficult for scholars to establish knowledge that could be widely, or as easily distributed.
It’s hard to get your new knowledge of bees out and about to the world when there is an absence of solid political authority and people are more concerned about the Vandals and the Goths.
Wilson’s brief observation here is a chance to observe however the way human beings tend to arrange and rely on data and information. Virgil’s original observations represent a real scientific method, and while his findings were off by several crucial details, the man was working with the best means he had available. There was nothing wrong in Virgil’s conclusions ultimately because he did begin the study, and much like Charles Darwin his writings would be, not abandoned completely, just corrected over time. Humans beings need original observations in order to build real knowledge and establish actual facts about the world around them. What’s important about Virgil’s observations is that they became accepted partly because of his direct observations, but more importantly because they reaffirmed the political and social philosophy of his world and the world beyond it.
Humans beings looked to the bees as a validation that they were living their lives according to the will of nature and the will of god. Science, and ideas period, are received positively when the culture that supports it are ready for it or willing to accept it.
I realize that I’m waxing philosophic and not really digging into bees in general but that’s largely because The Hive has provided me with so much material and so many opportunities to reflect on what I have actually learned. Great books are supposed to leave the reader with more questions and aspirations and ideas to consider and even though it’s been somewhere around several months since I finished the book I’m still finding myself stopping and considering elements of the text. I’m still considering the image of the beekeeper and what role that figure plays in the culture.
It’s not too much to say that beekeepers are not revered in contemporary society, and in fact observing the animosity towards bees it’s a wonder that beekeeping still retains whatever grace and dignity as a profession that it does. The beekeeper is not a man in my eyes, but a timeless being who is aiding the community by collecting the honey. And it’s important to note that this image is not unique for even a man like Lev Tolstoy thought as much.
The last chapter of The Hive discusses beekeepers, examining their history as well as their contemporary place in society and between these two ends of the arrow Wilson manages to discuss Tolstoy and his penchant for beekeeping. She writes:
During Tolstoy’s youth, beekeeping was just one estate activity among many, and he himself was wedded more to the manly pursuit of hunting than to the slow ways of the bee-men. But, as time went on and he became more and more attached to the peasant ways, his hives came to have a special place in his life. (268).
Wilson continues this later by noting:
He accumulated followers—the Tolstoyans—many of whom kept bees. Tolstoy also turned to the bees of Yasnaya Polyana, both for honey and for wisdom. Hunting was now out of the question for him—it was too violent—whereas beekeeping seemed more natural. In his main religious work The Kingdom of God is Within You(1893), Tolstoy used the bees to attempt to bring men to God. Men in their current state, he claimed, were “like a swarm of bees hanging in a cluster on a branch’. But this was only a temporary state: men, like the bees, must find a new place to live—the place of God. The bees are able to escape their position on the branch because each of them is ‘a living, separate creature endowed with wings of its own’. Similarly, men should be able to escape their current toils because each is ‘a living being endowed with the faculty of entering into the Christian conception of life’. (269-70).
Now my regular reader will hopefully remember that I’m an atheist and therefore conclude that I cannot agree with Tolstoy’s final vision. They’re correct in this matter, but even if I disagree with the final conclusion I am willing to admit that Tolstoy’s philosophy of the bees is still a beautiful idea. Even if this passage is riddled with Christian sentiment, at its core Tolstoy is offering up some kind of hope for the individual human mind to find its own path. The path still leads to god, but it does at least offer some hope for the individual to overcome the chaotic mass of civilization.
Tolstoy’s assessment is just one of the many philosophies contained in Wilson’s The Hive and it reveals the overall thesis of the book which Wilson concludes beautifully, and because I lack her ability with prose I’ll just provide her final quote here:
However much human beings have projected themselves on to the hive, identifying themselves with drones, workers, and the queen, and idealizing the morals of the waxen community, there will always remain mysteries about the life of bees which men can never discover. And it is for this very reason that humans will continue to search for truths about themselves in the gold of the honeycomb. (271).
There were never any bees in my father’s bug collections, but they were found within his Audubon Society Book of Insects and Arachnids and I remember looking through the pages studying the differences between the sweet honeybees and the bulbous gluttons that were the bumble bees. I remember being stung as a child by honeybees and hating them for it, and being stung again just a year ago and hating myself for having to pull the bee off me knowing that it would die. In the last year I’ve helped my father set up new walls in his beehive, and found myself feeling a sensation that almost borders on the sublime as I look between the panels and see the live body that is the hive. Those little arthropods sometimes look like they’re made of soft gold and their buzzing, collected together, is almost a discernable song.
The Hive did not jumpstart my love and intellectual curiosity of arthropods, but it has rekindled my love of them. A book like The Hive is a real boon for the culture because it is a chance for real self-reflection and metacognition. After reading the book I’ve rediscovered again that human beings are always looking for something, some quality, some force, some outside body or organism to provide them inspiration for the way they are to live their life. While there is most certainly a narcissism in this task, there’s also a real chance for intellectual beauty.
Humans have written poems, constructed buildings, crafted structures and machines, and drafted philosophy just by watching the ways bees live and behave, and this is an encouraging thought. Insects are often seen as grotesque “others,” beasts that offer nothing but corruption and profit from death. The Hive takes another look at this attitude and shows the reader that insects are far more noble in fact. They can offer inspiration and even substance both physical and spiritual.
Humans will always look to the bees and while they’re sure to suffer a few stings, that discomfort will almost surely lead to the next great discovery.
All quotes taken from The Hive were from the hardback First U.S. Edition, by Thomas Dunne Books.
I’ve provided links to two book reviews originally published in The Gaurdian if the reader is at all interested:
Because I am a huge fucking nerd for bees, while I researching and writing this essay I found numerous documentaries on YouTube about bees. If the reader would like to learn more about the insect or at least try to find some kind of appreciation for the little bugs, they can follow the links below.