Early Modern Bees examines early modern publications that refer to the Honey Bee and beekeeping practices, primarily in England, Scotland, and Wales, between 1470 and 1700.

What is Early Modern Bees?

When Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400-1468) introduced printing to Europe with his movable type printing press, he began nothing less than a revolution in knowledge. Scientific discourse, for instance, evolved only because it was now possible to spread information and ideas in standardised forms, quickly, efficiently, and widely through the medium of print. Those who describe Gutenberg’s innovation as the key factor in ushering in the modern world are not wrong. Whilst printing would have developed without him, his promotion of the technology in the latter half of the fifteenth-century was crucial to how our history developed. Much would be different; the past, inconceivably altered, if this had not happened.

You might ask, what does this have to do with the history of the Honey Bee? My answer is everything (or at least a lot). When Henry Malcolm Fraser described the history of beekeeping in 1958, he noted that little appeared to have changed for centuries until strong, stable governments made it easier to travel, and the printing press provided books that could be replicated and spread widely. ‘Wherever books could be carried’, Fraser wrote ‘men could journey, and the resultant exchange of information affected beekeepers as it did other people’ (Fraser, 1958, 28). He goes on to argue that:

‘this does not imply that a sudden crop of additional knowledge about beekeeping sprang up, so to speak, overnight. However, comparison of a book written early in the century with one appearing just before its close will show that the manner of regarding our craft was changing, and this changed outlook was preparing men’s minds for the great discoveries shortly to come.’

Knowledge about the Honey Bee indeed developed significantly between 1500 and 1600, and more so over the next few centuries. The first claims were made that the leader bee was female and not male; arguments were raised that killing bees could be avoided when extracting honey and wax; new hives were developed and tested; political allegories were developed, then discarded that claimed the Bee Colony as an ideal Commonwealth in miniature; long-held stories of morality and religion were undermined as a new understanding about the Honey Bee began to entrench itself in common-knowledge. What we knew or thought we knew about bees at the start of the sixteenth-century was quite different to what we knew by the end of the seventeenth and even more so by the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Even more, now, has been learned as science and technology shows us new things, whilst also demonstrating how dangerous we have become to the continued existence of such creatures.

Print, therefore, underlies the development of beekeeping knowledge and our understanding of the Honey Bee. In Early Modern Bees, I propose to examine this abundant corpus of source-material to expose a more nuanced understanding of the history of humans and bees. The focus will remain on English publications, from the first in 1573 right through to 1700 (the end date for this project). I will look at ‘how-to’ manuals, natural histories, textbooks, and scientific reports, but also literature, religious and moral philosophies, political satire and historical treatises. Indeed, any book that refers to Bees or Honey will fall into scope.

The purpose is to tease out a better understanding of knowledge and its development regarding both the Honey Bee as a creature and beekeeping as a practice, occupation, and technological query.   

Welcome to the world of the Honey Bee in early modern England!