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An 1840 cartoon by the conservative satirist George Cruikshank entitled The British Beehive depicts the many and varied industries of Victorian Britain: on the bottom tier, the military and banking system; at the very top, the Queen, Lords and Commons, propped up by the Church and a free press. The message was intended as a riposte to contemporary demands for societal change. Instead, Cruikshank argued, we should look to the bees: a model where everybody knows their place.
For millennia, humans have been fascinated by bees and what we can learn from them. In Henry V, Act 1, Shakespeare wrote: “for so work the honey bees, Creatures that by a rule in nature teach”. The notion of bees as exemplary subjects in a perfect monarchy makes potent propaganda for the ruling class. When Napoleon crowned himself emperor and his wife Josephine empress, her red velvet mantle was decorated with bees embroidered in gold thread. Bees were even worked into the carpet of the presidential palace.
For those of us toiling in the lower social echelons, bees represent something else: models of industry and co-operation. The Manchester worker bee has been the city’s proud emblem since the Industrial Revolution and in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing was adopted as a wider symbol of unity.
The Swedish writer Lotte Möller is far from the first to explore this shared history. In recent years, there has been (forgive me) a veritable swarm of books about the lives of bees and those that keep them. Möller has skin in the game herself, having kept several hives since the 1980s. In her first year, she writes, her protective clothing consisted of an old dressing gown, a bee hat, veil and rubber gloves; then, stepping away from memoir, she takes the reader on a trawl through beekeepers past and present. It is a brisk read, certainly very different from the deeper, personal reflections favoured by the new generation of British nature writers.
The result is an entertaining collation of bee trivia across the millennia. We learn, for example, that the Aristotelian assumption, that bees were ruled by a king persisted from the fourth century BC until the early 17th century, when it was eventually challenged by the English priest and scientist Charles Butler – who only felt emboldened to examine the possibility of queens, argues Möller, thanks to the long reign of Elizabeth I.
Other subjects of interest range from discussions with an old Swedish beekeeper about the best cure for stings (supposedly halving a raw onion and rubbing it on the swelling) to so-called “cleansing flights”, an annual event in early spring when bees pour out of their hives and stain white sheets hanging on washing lines in spots of almost-impossible-to-remove faeces. (Shiny paintwork on cars is another favoured target.)
Ironically, though, for a book about such a rigorously ordered creature, it feels a bit scattergun. This is not helped by an abundance of illustrations and a distracting structure, with every chapter subheaded in the old pamphlet style: April, for example, is “Various Kinds of Guests at the Hive Remembered and a Survey of What People Have Believed We Could Learn From Bees Through the Ages.”
The book ends on a tragic paradox: after so many thousands of years of co-dependence, humans are now “the greatest enemies that bees face… ever since we began spraying crops with pesticides the prospect of extinction has come to haunt the beekeeping world”. Those poisons have adopted various guises over the years: arsenic, the dreaded DDT, neonicotinoid (largely banned in the EU in 2018) and glyphosates, which can cost bees their ability to navigate. The looming prospect of the extinction of a society that has caused us so much fascination is a sad indictment of the failings of our own.
Bees and Their Keepers by Lotte Möller is published by MacLehose at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books