Last week I went to the Cloisters for their Annual Garden Day. I could have stayed home and worked in our garden here, which needs weeding, pruning - massive amounts of pruning, harvesting and also hoeing and raking, but there was a lecture on Beekeeping in the Middle Ages that beckoned. I could have stayed home to nurse my visiting sister who was laid low with a very nasty case of poison ivy. I could have ushered her into her oatmeal bath. I could also have stayed home to make some baked item to serve my stepson’s new in-laws who were dropping by in order to rhapsodize about the recently transpired wedding. (But I don’t bake.)
Of course I went the Cloisters to learn about medieval beekeeping. In many significant ways, beekeeping in the Middle Ages was not so different from current beekeeping, except there were no varroa mites, no pesticides and especially no neonicotinoids and the hives were such that in order to harvest honey, the hive and often the bees themselves had to be destroyed. But still, the bees made honey and wax, and humans availed themselves of their bounty.
No, the real difference between then and now is what we believe, or know, about honeybees and honeybee societies.
In History of the Animals, Aristotle enumerates some of the extant theories, circa 350 BCE, regarding the parthenogenic origin of bees: the babes spring from the honeysuckle flower; the young are brought forth from olive trees; bees emit their progeny through their mouths. Aristotle eschews mentioning bougonia, the commonly held belief that bees occurred spontaneously from the rotting carcass of a cow or oxen. But Virgil, in his Georgics, elegantly describes this birthing process of bees: a young bullock is smothered and beaten to death, then its body is strewn with rosemary and thyme, and once the Westerly winds start to blow, a swarm of bees emerges. So it was that the ancients believed that bees propagated asexually: parthenogenesis.
For Medieval Christians the great story of parthenogenesis was the Virgin Birth, whereby Mary – without benefit of sexual congress – gives birth to Jesus Christ. (I won’t go near the Immaculate Conception in this short space.) Hence medieval Christians associated the Virgin Birth with the parthenogenesis of bees, and further extrapolated an analogous relationship between monastic communities, full of virgins & ruled by a virgin/chaste abbot or mother superior, with beehives.
This somewhat essential misreading of the gender and procreative process of the bees contributed to the symbolism that surrounded the use of beeswax candles in Christian churches. Many people kept bees in the Middle Ages, but the monasteries were in the forefront of beekeeping because of the importance of beeswax to the rites of the Christian church. Not only did beeswax burn brightly and smell sweetly, unlike the smoky & smelly tallow that was used by the peasantry, but also beeswax had the cachet of being produced by virgins.
In Christian iconography, the beeswax candle represented Jesus Christ: the pure wax being his flesh and the wick his human soul. We can read from the Exultet, a portion of the liturgy recited during the Easter season, this magnificent Ode to the Candle:
If indeed the bees, while they conceive by mouth, so they give birth by mouth; it is with a chaste body, not from foul desire, that they copulate.
Finally, preserving their virginity, they generate offspring; they are glad with progeny; they are called mothers; they remain untouched; they generate sons, and they do not know husbands.
They use the flower as a husband; with the flower they furnish offspring; with the flower they build their houses; with the flower they gather riches; with the flower they fashion wax.
O admirable ardor of the bees!
O splendid examples of virginity […..]
Let us proclaim the favor of this candle.
Whose odor is sweet, and whose flame cheerful; its fat does not exude a foul odor, but a most joyful sweetness, which is not tainted by foreign colorings, but is illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
Which when it is lit feeds on the fabric of its own body, this weeps tears bound together in rivulets of drops.
And which disperses as a yellow vein the half-consumed portions as a divine blood, as the flame absorbs the received fluid.
Since earliest times the Queen Bee has consistently been addressed as a King. As a powerful female, she was not alone in being regarded as necessarily male. She rules the hive? Well, then of course she is a guy. Because guys rule! Poor Joan of Arc dressed as a male in order to lead the French soldiers out of their slump and into victory over the English, and it was her cross-dressing that most incensed the clerics who interrogated her and condemned her to the flames. History and legend are replete with tales of young girls who dressed as boys in order to travel safely or enter restricted areas. Likewise history is full of powerful women – and sometimes simply energetic women - who have been condemned for their unwomanly behavior, for being mannish, tomboyish, butch, and unladylike (a favorite word of my mother’s, back when).
No such name-calling occurs in the beehive. The worker bees, all female, know the queen and they know their very survival as a hive depends upon her. Their survival depends upon the virgin queen embarking on her mating flight, high up into the drone space, where she will mate with as many drones as possible; the worker bees know their survival depends on the queen bee then returning to the hive, filled with enough sperm to lay 2000 eggs a day for the next two or three years.
It was not until Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), a Swiss entomologist, looked at the queen bee under the newly discovered microscope, and identified her ovaries, that we came to know – and believe – a single queen was the mother of all the bees in he hive.
Even then, it would be a while before it was understood that drones inseminate the virgin queen. And further understood that inseminating virgin queens is the one and only purpose of the drones, who otherwise do not gather nectar, nor sting, nor create honeycomb. All they do is fly up to the “drone space” and hover all day long waiting for a virgin queen to show up.
Into the 20th century, the prejudices of human mores colored our understanding of the insemination of the queen. It was accepted that yes, it was not a virgin queen who lays 2000 eggs a day, but we clung – moralistically? - to a belief in her essential monogamy. Only in the 1940’s did scientists verify that queens on their nuptial flights mate with multiple drones. To really appreciate this startling fact, we can read E.B. White’s brilliant Song of the Queen Bee, from the New Yorker of 1945, which he wrote in response to this bulletin from the US Dept. of Agriculture: “The breeding of the bee has always been handicapped by the fact that the queen mates in the air with whatever drone she encounters.” You really should read in its entirety E.B. White’s poem, which ends thus:
For I am a queen and I am a bee,
I'm devil-may-care and I'm fancy-free,
Love-in-air is the thing for me,
Oh, it's simply rare
In the beautiful air,
And I wish to state
That I'll always mate
With whatever drone I encounter.
(I have found so-called science books for children, published in the 1950’s and 1960’s, stating categorically that the queen bee mates with one and only one drone. I tried to contact the publishers and express my outrage at this promulgation of false science, but was rebuffed.)
So with such thoughts of bee procreation in my head, we went a few days later to see a wonderful new movie, More than Honey, by the Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof. (We saw it at Jacob Burns in Pleasantville, and I hope it will get widely shown. I highly recommend it.)
Imhoof was moved to create this documentary by the environmental crisis affecting the honeybees. He charts the paths of several different beekeepers, from a picaresque Swiss who keeps the native European black bees much as did his grandfather and great-grandfather before him, to his (Imhoof’s) daughter-in-law researching honeybee genetics in Australia (the only place on earth with no varroa mites), to an American migratory beekeeper, trucking thousands of hives to the almond groves of California and to the apple orchards of the Pacific northwest and back to the Dakotas to make honey. Perhaps one aspect of the brilliance of this movie is that even this migratory beekeeper - whom we first meet as he is listening to the buzzing din of bees pollinating the almonds, saying, “That is the sound of money” – is not vilified, but allowed to tell his story in a humane and nuanced way. Later he will say, referring to the loss of his hives to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD): “I’m getting real comfortable with death of an epic scale”.
Along the way, Imhoof captured on film something I never thought I would see: a drone mating with a virgin queen, midair. The process takes a few seconds, and only when it was over, and the camera captures the drone pulling out of the queen and then plummeting to the ground as he dies, bereft of his inner organs, did I cotton to what I had just witnessed: way up in the beautiful air, where it’s simply rare, I saw a drone and a queen starting the process that would result in tens of thousands of more bees.
Of course I had no idea how feat was accomplished, but I have learned. Imhoof and his crew learned where the ‘drone space’ was. They built a 10-meter high platform for their camera and cameraperson. The drones, however, congregate even high than that. So in order to lure to drones down to their altitude, the filmmakers emitted pheromones. Then they filmed, and filmed, for ten days, and for that they have 30 seconds of amazing footage.
“O admirable ardor of the bees!” Indeed.