Monday, May 9, 2011

Busy As a Bee

I've just finished reading The Hive by Bee Wilson and am suddenly fascinated by bees. I picked the book up on a whim and found it amazing. The book focuses on the history of how humans have interacted with bees. How we've used the hive as inspiration in work and politics. How honey and ideas of love have been intertwined throughout history. And of course how honey has changed the world. Halfway through the book I had to go down to the kitchen to grab a teaspoon of honey. And I've been doing that daily since I finished the book.
Bees have been compared to everything from monarchies, republics, anarchies, and nurseries. If that seems contradictory, it is. I just saw an ad on TV for Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey Whiskey which uses a rebellious male bee as its mascot. For centuries humans thought that the bees were ruled by a king who sent his soldiers out to do battle and gather provisions. Aristotle once said that bees had to be ruled by a male because no one would ever give weapons to females. Of course now we know that the hive is ruled by one true female. Workers are undeveloped females and drones (the males) are really only there to eat honey for a short bit of time, mate, and then die in the process. Like the Praying Mantis, the male bee doesn't survive his encounter. After mating season ends the surviving drones will be starved.

Bees are one of the only untamed creatures that provide food for humans. And bees have never been tamed. They can and do swarm at any time, fleeing from a hive where things aren't right to find a colony which is better. The flowers surrounding a hive will flavor the honey. Tastes can run anywhere from divine lavender honey to the rather gritty and foul rapeseed honey. An apiary out on New York just discovered that its honey was turning red. The bees were visiting the maraschino cherry factory next door for the sugary red syrup. I can only imagine what that honey tastes like. Now I'm fascinated by the idea of tasting as many types of honey as I can. Mostly I've only had clover honey. Now I'm ready for something more exotic.

The thing that really shocked me though while reading this book was the number of mistaken assumptions about bees. Up until the 1700s it was believed that bees sprang from a dead oxen prepared in a special way. Bees, who hate the smell of decay, were supposed to spontaneously generate from oxen. This wasn't just a superstition. It was practiced. It was also believed that bees (being chaste of all sex) could tell someone who wasn't. It was common practice for intended brides to be sent through an apiary. If she emerged unscathed, she was a virgin. If she was stung, well...the wedding was off. During the times of the crusades it was believed that bees would fight in wars for the good of heart. I can't think of another creature that is so iconic, and so misunderstood. Beehives are the icons of industry even today. I'm just starting to notice how often bees pop up in advertising or in products for sale.

This was a fascinating book and I'm suddenly really excited about the idea of trying more honey. I'm also growing more and more excited about the idea of someday keeping bees myself. I've been reading accounts of beekeepers, looking at video of apiaries, and of course trying honey. I know it won't happen for a long long time. But suddenly I'm excited about the idea of bees. And learning more about these amazing creatures.


Keith said...

I'm going to assume that you know about Neil Gaiman's apiary in Wisconsin.

If not, go to his Personal Assistant's blog at Lots of bee content, as well as roller derby, dressage and Bengals.

Cat B said...


I do know about his apiary. I actually hadn't spent that much time on the Fabulous Lorraine's blog. I've read Neil's blog for years. Did I mention I have a huge crush on him? I've also been reading his beekeeper's blog for a couple years now. She's Sharon Stiteler, who also goes by the Birdchick.

I'll check out Lorraine's if you check out Birdchick. Great beekeeping tips and wonderful birding stuff. She's the reason I've become a birder.

Keith said...