There’s so many books about bees, and especially honeybees, you might think people are trying write a book for every bee in a hive. One expression of our fascination is Sweetness and Light, by Hattie Ellis, an overview of the history of human relations with honeybees, focusing on some real characters who spent their lives obsessed with bees. Three of them stand out for their devotion.
Jan Swammerdam, son of a collector, started his own collection of insects. Trying to please his father, a pharmacist, Jan became a doctor but never earned a living by it. Instead, he obsessively drew bees through a microscrope until he ruined his eyes and his health. He tried to get away from his father, and ended up following a guru, which naturally went badly. So he went back to live with his father and outlived him by only a year.
William Cotton was a classic bee enthusiast and a bit of an eccentric. When he was sent in New Zealand, he tried to bring beehives along in unbelievably elaborate contrivances–which probably didn’t work. Once there, he popularized beekeeping and was said to carry bees in his pockets. He even wrote a book in Maori about beekeeping. Most importantly, in a time when harvesting honey meant destroying a skep, he said: NEVER KILL YOUR BEES. Sadly he only spent a few years in New Zealand before he was called back to England to administer a parish, and he just wasn’t the same afterward.
Lorenzo Langstroth discovered that bees leave passages of 3/8 inch inside the hive. Less than that, they glue shut with propolis. More than that is big enough to build comb in. When you offer honeybees frames parted by the beespace, the bees live and store honey in hives that can be disassembled easily. We see the Langstroth hive everywhere as those stacks of white boxes in the orange groves. While Langstroth never made any money off the patent he filed, he remained an influential beekeeper throughout his life.
I wish I could invent characters like these! Speaking as someone who loves watching the various mystery bees in my yard, there seems to be something a little off kilter about bee people. So of course I had to write a story about a Bee Lady.
Next week: For the birds