According to the old English nursery rhyme: A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly. Even if we could muster enough bees in these days of ever-dwindling bee populations, apparently it’s too late in the season for a regenerating swarm. Nevertheless, there still seem to be bees around, in my garden, on the streets of Salem, and in my bookmark folder labeled interesting insects. So it’s a good time to showcase most of the above.
For the past few years, the city of Salem has been initiating public art projects, and this year the goal is all about transforming mundane surfaces into works of art. All the utility boxes around town have been painted, and my favorite is the “bee box” near the intersection of Essex and Summer Streets: here we have a real swarm, or at least a utilitarian representation of one.
I think bees are on everyone’s minds now that their numbers are in decline, but in fact representations of them go way back: the royal associations, their industrious and organizational nature, and the fact that they were the source of Europe’s native sweetener made them very conspicuous insects in western culture. Sometimes they even seem to transcend insect-hood, or at the very least represent all of insect-hood, as in God made the birds and the bees.
Some medieval bees: pollinating, confronting a bear, and making honey:
British Library MSS Harley 3244 (after 1236), Harley 3448 (15th century) and Sloane 4016 (c. 1440).
Bees were big in the early modern era, as their role in pollination was universally known and expensive imported sugar could not fulfill the demand for sweet treats. They also became, very notably, the subjects of the first publication of empirical observations made with one of the revolutionary instruments of the era, the microscope, in Federico Cesi’s and Francesco Stelluti’s Apiarium (1625; detail below). In England, all of the practical gardening manuals from the sixteenth and seventeenth century contain sections on bee-keeping; it seems to be a natural component of cultivation, not a specialization by any means. Sometimes women are the designated bee-keepers, sometimes men. There were also books focused particularly on bee cultivation and bee culture, like John Levett’s classic Ordering of Bees (1634, below) as well as satirical allegories like John Day’s Parliament of Bees (perhaps 1607, but not printed until 1641). Given that bees live in a matriarchy as well as their general nature and attributes, I’ve always wondered why Elizabeth never made more iconographical use of them; perhaps it was too patently obvious.
Centuries later, Napoleon had no such subtlety: he used bee motifs to project legitimacy for his very new regime. The bee enabled him to project royalty–as it was associated with France’s very first royal dynasty, the Merovingians, and with France’s early medieval emperor, Charlemagne–while disassociating himself with the fleur-de-lys-bearing Bourbons whom he displaced.
Bonaparte among the Bees: portraits of Napoleon by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (after 1804) and Jacques-Louis David (1812; National Gallery of Art, Washington).
Bees were too universal and essential to be stigmatized by their association with Napoleon, and after his fall they became an important decorative motif in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, appearing on textiles, ceramics, and jewelry, and in many illustrations and lithographs. At the same time, this very industrious era produced several key innovations in bee-keeping, most notably Langstroth’s movable frame hive, bringing about a revolution in the management of bees. Art, science, and industry were inextricably connected when it came to bees, and I haven’t even touched on advertising.
Wedgwood Sugar Caster, early 19th century, and French bonnet veil, c. 1860, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; illustration from Brockhaus Konversations-Lexicon : allgemeine deutsche Real-Encyklopädie. (Leipzig : F.A. Brockhaus, 1883-1887), New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Of course bees continue to be inspirational for artists, designers, and crafters. Given that the bee population is declining at an alarming rate (30%!!!), I hope that their ongoing popularity is not merely a sentimental urge. There are too many items emblazoned with bees to showcase here, but I am drawn to British ceramicist Fenella Smith‘s bee mugs and jugs, which you don’t see everywhere (yet).