A Point of View: On bees and beings

Close-up of honeybee

Why did Shakespeare mistakenly describe the head of the hive as a king bee, asks Adam Gopnik - especially as he was in the habit of flattering the boss, and his boss was Queen Elizabeth I.

Over the past few weeks in America, arguments about gender and sex and identity have been buzzing all around us. Gay marriage is now not just a liberal principle but a liberal piety - and one knows a piety from a principle because even those who oppose it have to pretend to honour its core point.

No one is any longer allowed to say that they do not think that homosexuals should be allowed to decide to live together, even if Mitt Romney believes that they should not be allowed to rent tuxedos and pay for a caterer when they do.

An odd light, as our grandfathers would have written, got thrown on the issue the other day when my 17-year-old son was working his way through the text of Shakespeare's Henry V, with an eye to a student production.

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Adam Gopnik
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST
  • Adam Gopnik is an American commentator and writes for The New Yorker

Our children - I should explain - go to a wonderful but slightly pixilated progressive school in New York, whose core pieties rest both on the necessities of ethnic and sexual diversity in all things and on the practices of the Elizabethan theatre. The kids are taught that all prejudice of any kind is always wrong… but that bed tricks and iambic pentameter are inherently virtuous.

Their ambitious theatre program produces not merely Midsummer's Night Dream and The Tempest but a full dress four-hour production of Ben Jonson's Volpone. There are always four performances, two on Friday, one each for Saturday, Sunday - and so four hours of Ben Jonson means, for a parent whose own core piety is to never ever miss a child's performance, a total of 16 hours struggling with the London slang of 1600.

I suppose we also know a piety from a principle because we are prepared to pay a very high price to maintain it.

In any case, there was Henry V on the table, and we arrived at Canterbury's famous speech on how the well regulated kingdom is like a bee hive. You know the one:

Actors performed Henry V, directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre in London, 2003 Adrian Lester as Henry V

They have a king and officers of sorts;

Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,

Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,

Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,

Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds,

Which pillage they with merry march bring home

To the tent-royal of their emperor;

Who, busied in his majesty, surveys

The singing masons building roofs of gold...

And so on.

The beauty of the verse could not conceal to the kids a weird absence. How could Shakespeare know that much about the division of bee-labour, the drones and the workers and the rest, and not know that the big bee in the centre was - a girl bee? Why make the top bee a king, and emperor?

The standard academic piety, which I offered immediately, is to say that Shakespeare, living in a strict patriarchal society, made his beehive one too - but this sounded too stupid to be credible, especially since the, well, honey-tongued Shakespeare presumably knew that one of the smartest pieties of any era was always to flatter the boss. When the top bee in his own hive was a queen, why not say so?

Bee on a sunflower

I decided to take advice, and emailed the great Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt asking for illumination - and he wrote back to say that he didn't know the answer, but so far as he knew lots of 17th Century poets make the same error. Greenblatt suggested checking with Virgil's Georgics, and sure enough, there, too, the queen bee is transgendered, dressed up as a king bee - this despite some lovely stuff about how the bee-moms take care of the bee-kids.

A little more digging in the library and on line - Google are our own singing masons, building roofs of information under which we crouch, and steal some nectar - and I found out the bee sex confusion goes back at least to Aristotle, and was only solved in the late 17th Century, when Swammerdam found that the king was, so to speak, cross-dressing and really had ovaries.

Bee facts

Close-up shot of bee
  • Responsible for pollinating almost 75% of the world's food crops
  • Beat their wings about 200 times a second
  • Considered to be one of the most highly socially organised insects on the planet

Swammerdam!

One of those great Northern European names, like Erasmus of Rotterdam that carries its credibility within its consonants. Soon I was deep, if briefly, in Swammerdamiana. This guy was a 17th Century Dutch biologist who discovered that all the stages of insect life were part of one thing, and that the big bee had ovaries. A master microscopist, he worked every day from six in the morning til noon, hatless in the brightest sun he could find to illuminate his work.

And yet the story didn't end there. A reference in an 18th Century work on Swammerdam led, surprisingly, still farther back - and I then discovered that an English bee keeper, exactly contemporary with Shakespeare, named Charles Butler, first affirmed, and in 1609, that the big bee was a girl, and wrote a book about bee keeping called nothing less than Feminine Monarchy to celebrate it. (It came of course, a little late for him to win brownie points with the queen for doing it.)

Butler was an interesting and practical-minded character. A clergyman, master at the Holy Ghost School at Basingstoke, he wrote a theological defence of marriage between first cousins, and then engaged his daughter to his nephew. Only other beekeepers seem to pay a lot of attention to Butler.

But it was clear that, far from being banished by patriarchal authority, the idea that the big bee was a babe, was actually right out there, if you had asked someone like Butler who actually hung around with bees. The idea was not censored or disallowed, just pushed to the periphery of practical knowledge rather than being part of the core of official piety.

Start Quote

One moral of the tale of the bees is, of course, always to trust the Butlers rather than the Aristotles of the world”

End Quote

I see that I am becoming as long-winded on the bee question as Canterbury, and I shall move rapidly towards my own point. It is this: it is one of the core pieties of contemporary pedantry that thought proceeds in fortresses as ordered and locked as a bee hive once seemed to be. We retreat into our world view or framework or mentality and leave it only at peril or under pressure.

But in truth, the beehive of the human mind may have order at its core, but it has lots of loose and buzzy action around its entrances and exits, and it is that action that is the sign of life.

Shakespeare thought that big bees were boys; but if he had bumped into Butler on one of his trips home to Stratford and the countryside, and had heard the schoolmaster say, "Liked that Henry play, Will, and the nice beehive bit. By the way, the big bee is actually a girl," Shakespeare wouldn't have been shocked, or had his world-view overthrown. He would have just said "Huh, really? You think? OK. If I ever do another bee poem, I'll adjust."

The sticky honey of uncertainty, the buzz around the beehive's entrance - these are the signs of minds at work. When our children ask us, "what's consciousness?" or "what's life?" or simply, "why are some people born that way?" - all questions which in truth we don't have an answer for yet, we don't say, as perhaps we should, "no one knows! Go find out."

We shrug and say, it's, um, sort of like… one way or the other. What we do not know we sketch rapidly in the air, and then shrug.

One moral of the tale of the bees is, of course, always to trust the Butlers rather than the Aristotles of the world. Trust the man who sees the bees instead of the old Greek philosopher who just had opinions about them. But it is also, surely, that the fortress theory of knowledge is always false. No age thinks monolithically, and no great mind begins in absolute clarity.

Queen bee and worker bees

Charles Darwin himself, skipping ahead centuries, had no idea how inheritance happened, but he didn't say, I have no idea how this happens! Instead, he said, well it may be kind of like a blend of stuff in the parents or maybe it's like a blend plus stuff the parents have done.

Anyway, as I was saying, natural selection works like this… Darwin made a fortress out of fog, and was content to do his work within it. Our mental life is more like the London of Holmes and Watson, we wander in the fog, making our way through it. Occasionally a clue or two helps solve the mystery within the fog, and then we walk back home happily in the pea soup. The fog is our habitat; the fog is our home.

As I brooded these long and buzzing thoughts, my wife, queen bee of our home, thought more fertilely. She knew that the real issue was not who was the bee? But who would play the king? She had a terrible intimation that these pious schoolmasters would do as they had done before with Prospero and Mercutio - that is, cast a girl in the key role of King Harry.

Our 17-year-old would once again be merely one of the singing masons, or civil citizens or even a poor mechanic porter. I wonder now if Shakespeare, when he wrote of hives and pointed towards kingdoms, was not, like Butler, really writing about the hive most near at hand. In other words, about the theatre, where everyone plays a part, and, drone or queen, you can't complain about the role you're given. There may be many mixed minds in an age but there are no small parts in well-conducted hives.

Here is a selection of your comments

Virgil (70-19 BC) thought bees did not mate, but they came from the leaves and grass, and new swarms were produced from the carcass of a dead bull. Strangely, 'bee' (apis) is feminine in Latin and Greek.

Maro, Mantova, Italy

If we avoid the piety of Euro-centricity, we will find that way back in the 7th Century the top bee was addressed by feminine verbs in a book some people believe is revelation from God - the Quran.

R. Nadwi, Oxford

The Queen bee is not in charge. She is simply an egg machine whose activities are controlled by the collective decisions of the worker bees. They decide what kind of eggs she produces by creating different shapes of breeding cell and, when they decide, build Queen cells to provide her replacement.

Bryan Sadler, Lancaster

Surely the question is not "Why did Shakespeare refer to the head bee as a king?", but "Why would a character in Henry V not do?" Canterbury would not have described a beehive as being headed by a queen as he lived both before this was discovered and in a country headed by a king. If Shakespeare had used 'queen' instead of 'king' it would just be sloppy characterisation.

Simon Ceri, Tyldesley

Well, that's a coincidence: I am reading 'Henry V', and had just passed Canterbury's speech. The Oxford University Press edition's footnote reads: "Aristotle thought the queen bee was male - an error perpetuated in his name until 1586, when it was corrected by Luis Mendez de Torres. However, his discovery seems not to have reached England until 1609, with the publication of Charles Butler's 'The Feminine Monarchy'; it was resisted for many decades after that." It's always the things we know too late (and then try to cover up when we do know them)...

Darren Nuttall, London

Or perhaps Shakespeare was writing in character as a 15th century archbishop. You know, like writers do.

Toby Moore, Liverpool

Such misapprehensions about the structure and hierachy of the hive persisted well into the 20th Century. As some bluesman (and the Rolling Stones) sang: "I'm a King Bee baby, buzzin' around your hive."

Andrew Kerr, London

Now let's refer to the Epilogue of the Merchant's Tale, which seems to suggest that Chaucer or rather Harry Bailey (mine host at The Tabard), into whose mouth the words are put, had some notion of this bee-gender business (or busy-ness): "Lo, whiche sleightes and subtilitees, In wommen been! for ay as bisy as bees, Been they, us sely men for to deceyve, And from the soothe evere wol they weyve; By this marchauntes tale it preveth weel."

Malcolm Redfellow, London

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