Bees, science, sex and literature in the nineteenth century

New study examines bees, science, sexuality and literary culture in the nineteenth century

Today, honeybees are the most recognisable and most domesticated insect species in the world. “This is a direct legacy of changes in beekeeping that began two centuries ago,” explains researcher Dr Alexis Harley.

“Over the course of the nineteenth century, honeybees attracted unprecedented economic and scientific attention. They managed to colonise every bee-habitable continent on earth – including Australia, where they arrived in 1822.”

Beekeeping technologies also diversified at an unprecedented rate, and knowledge that is vital to beekeeping today – such as the existence of ‘bee-space’, the mechanisms of bee reproduction and the role of insects in pollination – was developed in the 1800s.

“As honeybees became more integrated into food networks,” explains co-researcher, Dr Christopher Harrington, “the social complexity and intelligence of honeybee societies became more widely known thanks to a growth in literacy, education and popular natural history literature.”

“Because honeybees came to be seen as akin to but alien from human beings, appeals to their natural history became embedded in arguments about the nature of capitalism, socialism and democratic movements like Chartism and Suffragism. Perceived as ‘perfect societies’, honeybees became foundational to the debate about how to fix our imperfect societies.”

Dr Harley’s and Dr Harrington’s research, to be published in a new collection of essays, Bees, Science & Sex in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century (Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature), examines what happened as emerging scientific knowledge about honeybees and changes in beekeeping practice complicated the ways bees had been represented in renaissance, medieval and classical literature.

“Honeybees appear in the most unlikely of places in nineteenth-century literature,” says Dr Harrington. “Learned gentlemen wrote multivolume scientific poems devoted solely to honeybees. Feminists turned to drone bees to discuss patriarchy.”

“Honeybees appear as mediators in love poetry published in Regency newspapers. Working-class men wrote impassioned letters to seditious journals about secret bee meetings. Beekeepers employed literary conceits to promote the ethical treatment of honeybees and the activity of beekeeping became associated in fiction with positive representations of the New Woman. Indeed, some novelists went as far as suggesting that beekeeping could make you sexy.”

At a basic level, Harley’s and Harrington’s work explores the cultural importance of honeybees in the nineteenth century, showing how this period shaped the complex ways people think, feel about, and depend upon honeybees today.