You can find part one of this article here.


For a long time I thought only of bees. … All the physical capacities, all the behavioral subtleties, all the organizational mysteries, all the comradeship. All that golden beeswax lighting up the ancient world. All that honey sweetening medieval Europe. All those bees, timeless templates for the most diverse human projects and ideologies.

—Hugh Raffles[1]

All utopias—“dreams of a perfect world”—are not equivalent, and neither are they stable over time. Each “perfect world” is unique. Though “the beehive is perhaps the most enduring of social utopias,”[2] the specific positive virtues it represents have changed over time. The first half of this article explored the ways in which European writers through 1609 have typically described honeybee colonies as perfect societies in miniature, even as bees increasingly became objects of natural-historical inquiry. The second half of this article looks at how different modern bee-investigators have interpreted the beehive-utopia linkage in drastically different ways depending on their own political inclinations, as well as how contemporary scientists are continuing to, in a perhaps qualitatively new way, dream with bees of a better world for humans and other living things.

Modern beekeeping in the West dates to Charles Butler’s magnum opus, The Feminine Monarchie, published in 1609. Butler’s life work represents both a significant step toward seeing bees as objects of scientific study as well as the apex of the traditional bees-as-good-little-Christians-obeying-their-monarch model. But only one hundred and twenty years later, this model had irreversibly balkanized. In 1729, the final edition of Bernard Mandeville’s scandalous Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits appeared in print, standing the old linkage between honeybees and civic order on its head. Mandeville argued that the surplus economic energy generated by vice, not virtue, was the basis for society’s progress and political stability.[3] As the Enlightenment progressed, bee discourse joined with fly discourse, ant discourse, silkworm discourse, and so on to produce entomology. But honeybees remained key figures—far and above the others in economic importance—and the earlier discourse on beehives as utopian societies continued to proliferate, transformed by human politics on their march toward increased enfranchisement and restraint of monarchial authority.

When thinkers wanted to be good little loyalists, honeybees had a strong king or a queen. For Karl von Frisch, probably the most decorated bee-entomologist of all time and a liberal with Jewish ancestors who worked in Germany before and during World War II, bees were individuals who danced, spoke, and voted.[4] His academic nemesis in Munich, Nazi party member Ernst Bergdolt, wanted the hive to represent a merciless, efficient society that did not tolerate weakness—bees as miniature fascists. But von Frisch’s hard work and anti-totalitarian vision won out and became foundational to the modern entomological portrait of honeybee sociality.


These bees 2.0 represent little people who are highly efficient. They stand in once more for us and for better-than-us.


Today, we still often cast honeybee colonies as utopias. In 2013, a conference in Cambridge, England, brought together for the first time professional synthetic biologists, who engineer living things, and conservation biologists, who seek to maintain healthy ecosystems, in order to explore the question, “how will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?”[5] Images of honeybees with double helices of DNA superimposed onto their wings adorned every page of the framing paper for the conference. In one sense, these images—like the robotic bees on the cover of Kevin Kelly’s popular futurist tome Out of Control, or the actual RoboBees at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering—are not utopian moral models for us, but tools, the objects of technoscientific manipulation meant to serve existing human (libertarian or neoliberal) ends.[6]

In another sense, however, engineered bees used by technocrats to manage artificial but reformed/conserved ecosystems represent a possible future toward which some humans are striving—a utopia or a dystopia, depending on your inclination. As in earlier models, these bees 2.0 represent little people who are highly efficient. They stand in once more for us and for better-than-us.

Perhaps we’re seeing a shift in metaphorical role from bees as mini-people who inhabit their own closed-off utopias to bees as our better-than-us partners (less cruel, less wasteful) in managing and improving the world we inhabit together. The reasons for this potential shift seem clear: Natural observations led us to see beehives as perfectly ordered and productive (Aristotle), then as specifically feminine but still strongly hierarchic (Butler), then as liberal-democratic (von Frisch), and finally as not only potential tools (things to engineer) but as neighbors threatened by the imperfections of human social organization—that is, by pesticides, global commerce, pollution, and the unintended effects of the risks we take in postmodern worldbuilding.


In the era of synthetic biology and genomics, we cannot stand apart from nonhumans nor perfectly order our world along rational, Enlightenment lines.


As the extensive emerging literature on colony collapse disorder (CCD) demonstrates, one way in which we are imagining the future of bee society is as largely absent in the near future, a reminder of the folly of humanity and the arrogance of technoscientific risk-taking.[7] Since late 2006, CCD—the “sudden loss of a colony’s worker bee population with very few dead bees found near the colony”—has devastated honeybees populations.[8] CCD is a scientifically ambiguous and controversial threat composed of interlocking factors. Possibly caused by neonicotinoid pesticides,[9] or by some interaction of pesticides (which can lower bee immunity even at nonlethal doses), poor insect management (overworked bees), pathogenic viruses and bacteria, and the parasitic mite Varroa destructor,[10] CCD does not offer us a model of a sick society. It is a disaster of absence, evoking a pre-nostalgia for bees, a feeling of loss before the loss has occurred. This is a mutation of utopia from “no-place” as in “too good a place for us to make here on earth” to “no-place” as in literally nowhere—a mere memory.

Bees’ status as moral signposts has grown in value with their arraignment into the natural order. Perhaps the shift in direction—from bees teaching humans to humans using but also struggling to save bees—shows that many writers interested in the future forms of their societies are finally becoming aware, in the era of synthetic biology and genomics, that we cannot stand apart from nonhumans nor perfectly order our world along rational, Enlightenment lines.

Instead we must work with nonhumans in surprising, ad hoc configurations. We must, like Butler, observe our world carefully and not take for granted our knowledge of nonhumans. We must be open to hybrids: We must be free to dream about bioengineered plants and bees, robo-bees, new types of regulations limiting the use of chemicals that while perhaps not the sole or primary cause of threats such as CCD are nonetheless strong suspects, new urban and farm design strategies for planting bee-friendly trees and other plants. These things are hybrid in the sense that Donna Haraway’s postmodern feminism is “cyborg”: We can’t count on some imagined “natural” nor on a techno-utopian engineering solution, just as feminists can’t rely on a pre-technological “natural” femininity. We must live in a messy reality in which it is difficult to extricate bee problems from human problems, and to bound off natural solutions from technological ones.

More than anything, we must not forget that within each new project to perfect a given society—human, apian, or hybrid—there probably lurks a splinter of an earlier utopia—a dream—recast as natural, as unchallenged fact. As surely as bees had no kings after 1609, they will probably continue to surprise us as we seek to work with, control, and ultimately help them in 2015.

Wythe Marschall is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard, where he researches the intersection of biotechnology, ecology, and culture, including bioart, biodesign, science fiction, and hip hop.


[1] Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 201.

[2] Bee Wilson, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, 106.

[3] Bernard Mandeville, Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits [final edition] (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988 [1729]).

[4] Karl von Frisch, The Dancing Bees: An Account of the Life and Senses of the Honey Bee (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966). Cf. Hugh Raffles’s chapter in Insectopedia entitled “Language.”

[5] Kent H. Redford,, William Adams, Georgina Mace, Rob Carlson, Steve Sanderson, and Steve Aldrich, “How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature? A framing paper prepared for a meeting between synthetic biology and conservation professionals” (Clare College, Cambridge, UK: Wildlife Conservation Society, 2013).

[6] Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World (New York: Basic Books, 1994); “Autonomous Flying Microrobots (RoboBees),” Wyss Institute Web site,

[7] The most recent estimate of CCD’s effects is Steinhauer et al, “Colony Loss 2014 – 2015: Preliminary Results” on For background, see Daniel Lee Kleinman and Sainath Suryanarayanan, “Dying Bees and the Social Production of Ignorance,” Science Technology Human Values 38 (2013): 492-517; Javier Lezaun, “Bees, beekeepers, and bureaucrats: parasitism and the politics of transgenic life,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29 (2011): 738-756; and the controversial Chengsheng Lu, Kenneth M. Warchol, and Richard A. Callahan, “Sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids impaired honey bees winterization before proceeding to colony collapse disorder,” Bulletin of Insectology 67.1 (2014): 125-130. Cf. Kosek.

[8] United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Pesticide issues in the works: Honeybee colony collapse disorder,” last modified May 15, 2012,

[9] Chengsheng Lu, Kenneth M. Warchol, and Richard A. Callahan, “Sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids impaired honey bees winterization before proceeding to colony collapse disorder,” Bulletin of Insectology 67, no. 1 (2014): 125-130.

[10] See Vincent Doublet et al, “Bees under stress: sublethal doses of a neonicotinoid pesticide and pathogens interact to elevate honey bee mortality across the life cycle,” Environmental Microbiology (Mar. 2014): 1462-2920, doi:10.1111/1462-2920.12426; United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Colony Collapse Disorder: 2012 Annual Progress Report, June 2012: i,4,6,; and Dennis vanEngelsdorp et al, “Colony Collapse Disorder: A Descriptive Study,” PLoS ONE 4, no. 8.e6481 (2009): 12,15, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006481.

Image from Flickr via Chiot’s Run


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