The first in a two-part feature.

 

Pity the animal that lives only as a shadow of the human, the animal forced to react rather than respond, the animal whose task it is to give flesh, spirit, and meaning to the human, the animal whose melancholy fate is to be humanity’s other.

—Hugh Raffles[1]

We humans love to tell ourselves stories about how, at some point in the future, our society will be made perfect—that is, about a place called utopia. Utopian features result from a struggle between a “desire to create an ideal world” and a need to accommodate to external pressures.[2] Utopias are “dreams of a perfect world,” a world yet to come. The word itself, however, dropping the “e” from the Greek prefix “eu-” (happy), is best translated not as “perfect place,” but as “no place”—nowhere.[3]

Of course, adults aren’t allowed to believe in perfection or imaginary no-places, and children don’t like stories about politics, so we often translate our stories about perfect societies into a world of anthropomorphized animals. We give different organisms different symbolic qualities, with familiar animals standing in for ourselves. A human in-group becomes a pride of lions, nobly defending itself from an out-group transmogrified into a pack of crafty but ultimately cowardly hyenas (The Lion King). Or we become clairvoyant rabbits dreaming of a peaceful world-warren and willing to reenact, on a lapine scale, the rape of the Sabines in order to construct it (Watership Down). Maybe we’re lab rats seeking our origins in technoscience, which appears ultimately as mystical as any religion (The Rats of Nimh). Or we live on a world-farm full of Leninists and heretics and informers and Trotskyites (Animal Farm). Our children learn various important life lessons from motley cute nonhumans (Charlotte’s Web, Babe, Wall•E, Fraggle Rock, Antz)…

But if any one animal is humanity’s definitive other, it is the honeybee, Apis mellifera. Truly eusocial bees—those who have morphologically distinct castes and are “hiveminded,” each individual bee giving up its own reproductive rights for the good of the superorganismic hive—have worked together to produce honey for 10 to 20 million years.[4] Humans have collected this honey for the last ten thousand, gradually developing means of keeping more bees, generating more honey, and radically altering what bees look like and how they behave.[5] The English language has since its beginning promoted a specific, highly anthropomorphic way of understanding honeybees and their form of life. Bees, in English, have or have had a “king” or “queen,” “princes,” and “workers” who sometimes act as “scouts” or “soldiers” on “patrol.” Bees organize themselves into “colonies,” implying that each group comes from elsewhere, and that a core sends a swarm of soldiers to a periphery, which can in turn become a new core. The process of swarming is akin to that of imperial annexation.

This vision of a hierarchic, militarized honeybee society has long been explicitly utopian, with various versions of an imagined perfect social-insect order popping up before Thomas More’s 1516 book gave them a lasting name. European writers have looked to honeybee colonies for models of human behavior—sociality, political order, morality, and military strategy—since at least Aristotle’s Politics, circa 350 BCE. Rome saw a proliferation of texts by moralists-cum-beekeepers such as Cicero, Virgil, and Pliny.

 

The bee colony functioned as a utopian model for human society according to beekeepers, natural philosophers, and moralists, and these were often the same individuals.

 

In the texts of medieval writers and their early modern successors, natural-historical observations of apian kind are mixed with philosophical musings on the shortcomings of men. The first printed English books to mention beekeeping appeared early in the sixteenth century, and in 1599, Shakespeare’s Canterbury, in Henry V, proclaimed the hive a “peopled kingdom” with a king, soldiers, and even an executioner to punish “the lazy yawning drone.”[6] Overall—in the words of Eva Crane, historian and founder of the International Bee Research Association—thinkers in “the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries used the beehive and bees to support the political and moral arguments of the ancien régime.”[7]

An increasing focus by social and moral theorists after More on rational governance (exemplified by the writings of Erasmus and later Thomas Hobbes), and an increasing philosophical reflection on the foundations of knowledge (personal observation, not Aristotelian tradition) and the possibility of knowing more than the ancients, led to the imagining of many utopias, or no-places, which human societies should emulate. In The Education of a Christian Prince, published the same year as More’s Utopia (1516), Erasmus offered the beehive’s hierarchy as a model of human sociality to Emperor Charles V of the Habsburgs.[8]

It was the century of Milton that saw English thinkers’ most sustained engagement with bees as “model” organisms, in part because seventeenth-century England’s political and religious turbulence begged for new models, and in part because natural philosophers such as those who founded the Royal Society in 1662 were actively developing new ways of knowing the living world. The bee colony functioned as a utopian model for human society according to beekeepers, natural philosophers, and moralists, and these were often the same individuals. These functions changed over the course of the century of the English Civil War and the birth of the Royal Society—both of which were utopian ventures.

Charles Butler’s landmark 1609 text, The Feminine Monarchie—called “the first scientific book about beekeeping”—demonstrated the transformative power of the Baconian scientific outlook.[9] Butler not only identified the “king”-bee as female, but he asserted, based on countless observations, that drones are males, not subordinate females. “By the close of the eighteenth century, it could no longer… be denied that the hive was, above all, a feminine environment.”[10]

 

Investing Bermuda with beehives could be conceived of as inserting into utopia many micro-utopias—as creating Russian dolls of imaginary landscapes of orderly perfection.

 

Before Butler, there was little tension between “worlding”—beekeeping as a craft, a practical act entangling humans and insects—and utopian moralizing—a discourse imposing symbols onto insects. Butler, however, was both an astute observer of bees—he was Elizabeth I’s official beekeeper—and a trained priest and moral theorist.[11] He could not see that the queen bee was female and the drones male and ignore these facts, but neither could he give up a utopian understanding of the beehive as an England in miniature, governed wisely and equitably by a single all-powerful monarch. Butler had lived during the prosperous reign of Elizabeth I, who died in 1603. He thus argued firmly that the large or master bee was indeed a queen, and that the queen was the firm ruler of a miniature utopia.[12]

The timing of Butler’s publication contributed to his legacy as the “father of English beekeeping.” In early seventeenth-century England, “being innocent, bees were particularly appropriate for a garden recreating Eden.”[13] Eden—past utopia—was a contested, much written about religious abstraction. But it was also, for many writers, a real place that had existed and could, in a novel and perhaps limited form, exist again. Butler published his magnum opus in the same year that the first English ship sent to North America, the Sea Venture, crashed in Bermuda—carrying a cargo of, among precious few items, skeps full of European honeybees, because the New World harbored only stingless bees, who produce limited amounts of honey.[14] (Skeps are the bullet-shaped wicker hives in which most honeybee colonies were kept until the mid-nineteenth century.)

In one sense, the colonies such as Bermuda and Virginia were utopias—nowheres imagined by many English to provide the solutions to external pressures at home. Investing Bermuda with beehives could be conceived of as inserting into utopia many micro-utopias—as creating Russian dolls of imaginary landscapes of orderly perfection. Utopia was thus not simply a theme for seventeenth-century English writers but an almost-visible, putatively tangible somewhere.

Even as a new scientific outlook led swiftly to the birth of entomology, utopia became reinscribed in the beehive, materialized in the form of a miniature England which would swarm and form its own orderly new colonies, generating ever-greater profits—whether of golden honey or hard specie. The literal, physical beehive was not reduced by rational inquiry to a mere animal nest. Much changed within apiculture after Butler’s day, of course, but beekeepers remained, more than ever, creators and managers of moral models—utopias—for their fellow humans.


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), 199.

[2] Sheldon Rothblatt, “The University as Utopia,” The Hans Rausing Lecture, Salvia småskrifter 2 (Uppsala: Wikströms, 2002), 7.

[3] Rothblatt, “The University as Utopia,” 9, 10.

[4] Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2012), 136; Raffles, Insectopedia, 186; Eva Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 19.

[5] Eva Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping, 19; Jake Kosek, “Ecologies of Empire: On the New Uses of the Honeybee,” Cultural Anthropology 25.4 (2010): 651.

[6] William Shakespeare, The Life of King Henry the Fifth, I, ii.

[7] Eva Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping, 18.

[8] Bee Wilson, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (London: John Murray, 2004), 114.

[9] Cf. Frederick R. Prete, “Can Females Rule the Hive? The Controversy over Honey Bee Gender Roles in British Beekeeping Texts of the Sixteenth-Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of the History of Biology 24.1 (1991): 113-144.

[10] Bee Wilson, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, 105.

[11] Tammy Horn, Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 6.

[12] Cf. “They have like common care both of their wealth and young ones… And all this under the government of one Monarch, of whom above all things they have a principall care and respect, loving, reverencing, and obeying her in all things.” Charles Butler, The Feminine Monarchie (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1609), 33.

[13] Jim Bartos, “The Spirituall Orchard: God, Garden and Landscape in Seventeenth-Century England Before the Restoration,” Garden History 38.2 (2010): 190.

[14] Eva Crane, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (New York: Routledge, 1999), 20. Shakespeare subsequently based the plot of The Tempest on this unplanned but not entirely lethal wreck, casting the New World as a wild, perhaps paradisiacal or at least prelapsarian land. Tammy Horn Bees in America, 264.

Image from Flickr via Mike Fritcher

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