30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Getting a buzz,
This review is from: The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (Hardcover)
Moving to a city meant abandoning my bees. The loss of truly fresh honey was aggravating by wondering if the bees "knew" me and felt the absence. Such feelings are examined in historical detail in this delightful book. "Bee" [Beatrice] Wilson's career as a food journalist has provided an excellent background for this history. She has a talent for reaching a wide audience, with a good balance for history, personality and shared interests. It's almost impossible to finish this account without wanting to rush to Paris' Maison du Miel [or its local quivalent] and browse through the selection of honey sitting on the shelves waiting to pleasure your palate.
The title is an indicator - how we've related to bees, their habits and their delicious product has a long history. Bees are the one social animal we've had a deep relationship with. They've provided templates to explain or guide human society - although we've been almost always wrong in how their society forms and operates. Early civilisations viewed them as warrior monarchies, ruled by a "king" driving, or being supported by, a soldier caste. Wilson examines six areas where humans have dealt with bees as their counterparts: work, sex, politics, food and drink, life and death. In their most intimate relationship, she adds the beekeeper as her conclusion.
Wilson explains how early commentators viewed the drone-worker relationship as symbolic of human society. Even today's leading British entomologist, Francis Ratnieks, compares the partitioning of roles to "the efficiency of the modern supermarket". The hive is actually superior in that it needs no central management to control events. The constant activity, however, has led many societies to adopt the hive as a symbol of "industriousness". Perhaps the most famous example is Brigham Young's Mormon "Deseret" colony. The bees showed how cooperation could accomplish anything. Wilson, in contrast, shows how worker bees go through successive levels of participation in simply doing the same thing over and over through the generations. Even a new colony simply repeats an age-old process.
The mystery of how bees procreate, mixed with the various views of how colonies were organised, led to some bizarre interpretations. So long as the "monarch" was seen as male, bee-human comparisons seemed apt. When it was discovered that the big bee, the centre of so much hive activity, was female ature itself appeared overturned. The idea of a single female, adored by crowds of "gallants" was abhorrent. That didn't prevent commentators from rationalising the arrangement.
Wilson recounts the views of numerous observers of apian life. Certain figures stand out, of course. Dutchman Jan Swammerdam had determined the sex of the hive "monarch". A dedicated naturalist, Swammerdam made meticulous drawings of bee anatomy, some still unmatched today. In Britain, it's Charles Butler who spanned the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, was the first serious observer of bee society. Karl von Frisch, of course, is honoured as the man who revealed how bees communicate, and that they perceive flowers in the ultraviolet part of the light spectrum. His discovery of the "waggle dance" as a means of imparting location of food sources among worker bees ultimately granted him a Nobel Prize. That he began his work refuting a false notion of colour perception in animals has a touch of
Wilson worked hard to give us this excellent summary of an insect essential to humanity. Pollinating orchards, providing a non-fattening sweetener, giving us valuable insights to Nature's processes, bees have gained a spirited champion with this book. Not a stolid academic study, the author graces her lively text with illustrations, photographs and a thorough bibliography of her research. She also rekindles my longing for a return to beekeeping and fresh honey. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]