The 20th of May is World Bee Day – an internationally recognised day when the United Nations, other partner organisations, countries and individuals recognise the important role that bees and other pollinators such as butterflies and wasps, play in the sustainability of our planet. Without the pollinating activities of these animals, much of our established food supply and agricultural crops would not be sustainable and yet researchers and scientists are witnessing an alarming decline in bees and other pollinators across the world.
World Bee Day aims to raise awareness of a range of ways in which individuals, corporations and countries can make a difference in supporting, restoring and protecting these vitally important species.
In celebration of World Bee Day and the British Library’s new exhibition Animals; Art, Science and Sound, this blog will explore a small selection of manuscripts and printed works that record our ongoing fascination with bees throughout human history.
On display in the Animals exhibition are three unique manuscripts that deal with the subject of bees.
The first is Mitsubachi densho [蜜蜂傳書] [蜜蜂伝書], a hand written and illustrated treatise on bees and beekeeping from Japan. Dating to the middle of the nineteenth century, the text is split into two sections – the first documents deals with honey bees and the different beekeeping practices found across Japan as well as the different flavours of honey produced in different regions. The second part of the volume contains illustrations and descriptions of other species of bee and associated insects such as wasps and hornets that also play an important role in the pollination of plants.
A page containing hand painting illustrations of different species of carpenter bees, Mitsubachi densho [蜜蜂傳書] [蜜蜂伝書], c. 1850, Or 1311.
Whilst much of the history of beekeeping has been dominated by western narratives this work offers an important insight into the traditional and local practices of bee keeping in Japan before the introduction of the western honey bee during the second half of the nineteenth century.
A second work on display in the Animals exhibition also includes information and illustrations concerning bees. The manuscript copy of Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum (Theatre of Insects), is often cited as the work of Thomas Moffett (1553-1604) but also containing research by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), Edward Wotton (1492-1555) and Thomas Penny (1523-1589). The manuscript contains not only the handwritten descriptions of hundreds of different insects known in England but also over 500 pencil, ink and watercolour illustrations of different species of insects that have been stuck to the relevant pages. This includes a page in which four watercolour paintings of different species of bee have been attached. Produced before 1590, the manuscript was not published until 1634, 30 years after Moffett died and although lacking the minute detail of the manuscript paintings, the printed edition of the work did include woodblock copies of the four bees found in the manuscript. The Library also holds a volume of proof impressions from the woodblocks made for the printed publication, showing that the four bees were carved into a single block rather than four individual blocks.
Folio from the manuscript copy of Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum (Theatre of Insects), Sloane Ms 4014, alongside the printed edition, 1634, C.78.c.17., and the impressions of the woodblock of the bees, C.107.e.91.
A final manuscript on display in the Animals exhibition that also documents bees is a Renaissance copy of Historia animalium (History of Animals). Produced in Italy in 1595, the manuscript contains 245 illustrations and accompanying textual descriptions of a range of real and fantastical animals including birds, butterflies, frogs, hedgehog and elephants. The descriptions are taken from various historical sources, including Historia naturalis (Natural History), compiled by the Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder(23/24-79AD), and Historia animalium by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322BC). Of all the animals included in the manuscript however the bee has the most space dedicated to its description, including 7 illustrated folios, showing bees as passive but also aggressive animals, swarming and stinging humans around their hives.
Four of the seven illustrations related to bees in Historia Animalium, 1595, Add MS 82955
Other apian works held by the Library but not on display include Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchie or, a history of bees, first published in 1609 and subsequently revised for new editions in 1623 and 1634. Butler (1571-1647) was a grammarian, author and priest but is perhaps most well-known as a beekeeper. Drawing heavily on his practical experience and from his observations of the social organisation of a bee colony and the production of beeswax, Butler wrote The Feminine Monarchie as a practical guide to beekeeping, with details on how to design gardens for bees, how to create hives as well as how to breed them and the products produced by bees. The Feminine Monarchie became the first full length English language publication on beekeeping and remained as a reference work for over two centuries. The name of the book highlights Butler’s argument that the colonies of bees were organised around a female queen bee rather than a dominant male – a theory that had already been posited by earlier entomologists but which Butler made more widely known. Due to the success of The Feminine Monarchie, Butler is known as a the ‘father of English beekeeping’ and although the first edition does not contain any illustrations, the third edition does include a rather novel piece of vocal music on a score known as a madrigal in which four people would imitate the sound of bees whilst swarming.
The Library also holds a copy of Jan Swammerdam’s Bybel der nature published posthumously in 1737-38. Swammerdam (1637-1680) was a Dutch biologist who used the newly invented microscope to undertake a range of anatomical studies and was one of the earliest scholars to accurately document the process of metamorphosis in insects. His research covered a range of insects, including the bee – the results of which were finally published in Bybel der nature. This included illustrations of his dissection of queen bee ovaries, mouthparts, brains and their compound eye.
The Library is also home to the UK’s national sound archive that holds over 6.5 million recordings of speech, music and wildlife from across the world. One recording in the Wildlife and Environmental sound collections contains the piping, tooting and quaking of three virgin queen bees found in a hive in a garden in the village of Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire. The recording was made by Richard Youell in 2014 and not only gives insight into the individual noises Queen bees make but also the general hum of a colony in the background.
The recording can be listened to here: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/honey-bees-piping-cambridge-2014
These are just a few of the items held in the British Library on the subject of bees – there are many more to discover.
Alongside materials held in the Library’s collection, there is currently a wonderful display of largescale high resolution photographs by Levon Biss that shows the mesmerising micro sculpture of various insects as never before. One of the prints on display is of an orchid cuckoo bee – a species of bee that takes its name for their behaviour of laying their eggs in the nests of other bees – similar to how a cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.
To find out more about our wider collections see: https://www.bl.uk/catalogues-and-collections
To find out more about our current Animals; Art, Science and Sound exhibition see: https://www.bl.uk/events/animals
To find out more about World Bee Day see: https://www.un.org/en/observances/bee-day
Claire Preston, Bee, Reaktion, 2006
Malini Roy, Cam Sharp Jones, Cheryl Tipp, Animals; Art, Science and Sound, British Library Publishing, 2023
By Cam Sharp Jones, Visual Arts Curator