marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

The Hive

The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us by Bee Wilson

A history of what we have thought about the honeybee.

It does include a fair amount of biological facts, and historical details about the use of honey and beeswax, but it has even more about the history of the ideas about the honeybee, because it has been quite popular there.

A model of work, often assuming that all the separate tasks (in fact predicated on the worker's age) were in fact assigned by the queen -- or king when they hadn't gotten that straightened out.  Hives are one of the commonest symbols of industrious labor.

Roman law trying to figure out whether honeybees were wild or tame, because a tame cow, if it strayed, was still yours, but a tame wolf that got away reverted to wild and freedom.  Some writers argued that they were tame because while, like doves, they flew out, they also, like doves, flew back.  But what about swarms?

The use of honey as an endearment and in marriage rites.  But once you get into hives, "the birds and the bees" do not apply.  Indeed, ancient and medieval writers who regarded them as the model of chastity were closer to the truth, because very few of them do have sexual intercourse.  And that, of course, only outside the hive.  Aristotle observed that no one had ever observed them copulating, and did manage to work out that since young bees did not spontaneously arise from flowers when there were no hives about, somehow the bees had to generate them.  It was thousands of years before anyone managed to work out more precisely what they did.  During which time they were especially raised by monks and nuns as entirely suitable models for their convents.  Widespread beliefs all over the earth about that, from sending a bride through an apiary to see if she was stung as a virginity test, to thinking that they hated adulterers, to refraining from intercourse the night before you did anything with a hive.

The politics of bees.  They have never been used as a model of democracies, but writers have portrayed them as perfect monarchies, republics, and, of course, totalitarian dictatorships.    (The flexibility of the trope.)  Increasing discoveries about sex and bees lead it to be more common to dedicate books to the queen consort than to the sovereign king.

Its use in food and drink, the long prevalence of mead and honey cakes, its fall before the rise of sugar, because once sugar was there to provide pure sweetness, honey had a distinct taste, but its niche market for those after natural sweeteners.

Its use to preserve corpses. How the Greeks used it so much in medicine that Hippocrates found that people associated it with death.  Bee stings and whether they have any medicinal values.  (Not likely.)

And much more
Tags: history reviews: across eras, non-fiction: science, thinking

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