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13 april 2011

Bees, like ants, mean pretty much whatever people want them to mean. They've meant industry, idleness, monarchy, socialism, cuddliness, homicide, sweetness and swarm. They've stood for sublime eternal verities like the Virgin Mary and for the blank horror of the hive mind. We think about them a lot, and with the collapse of bee colonies throughout the developed world in the last few years, we have become more aware of how our real-life fate is entwined with theirs.

Can anything mean anything? What does a creature so protean in the human imagination mean in and for itself, or does it have a nature at all? Clearly bees have some objective, ascertainable features that make them available for certain "readings." They are social. They reproduce in a distinctive way that makes all members of a particular colony siblings. They build homes, and manufacture (perhaps we should say "alafacture") their food.

These facts are not arbitrary, and as Claire Preston points out in her splendid Bee, they enable certain human concerns to get stuck to bees. Most animals don't form true societies; they may flock together, but they aren't very organized. Bees are corporate, and Preston is fond of the old proverb una apis, nulla apis (one bee is no bee at all). So when we look to nature for lessons about human societies, our options are few. Ants are fine, but don't live in symbiosis with us the way bees do. Much more human effort has gone into contemplating beehives than staring at ant farms: with the result that beekeeping has become a figure for the contemplative life itself.

Bees have been seen as exemplars of chastity and industriousness. In fact, their peculiar reproductive arrangements seem to invite moral lessons. Worker bees are beyond workaholism; drones don't work, but live to have sex once and die in the process.

Preston shows us "aesthetic" considerations of the bee; Le Corbusier thought of the beehive as the most perfect organic form. And honey, throughout history, has been a magical food deeply embedded in lore and culture. Light becomes flowers becomes honeycomb becomes light again (in the form of beeswax candles, a requisite of some religious rites).

Bees, in short, seem to have no serious problems. They can take or leave us, and they serve us (mostly) without complaint, while remaining aloof in their arthropod indifference. We long to be like them, but we sense their terrible vulnerability and their soul-destroying lack of individuality. A bee's brain weighs one milligram. They can't be thinking about us at all, but we can't stop thinking about them.

Preston, Claire. Bee. London: Reaktion, 2006.