Sweetness & Light: the mysterious history of the honey bee, by Hattie Ellis

An intimate and fruitful relationship
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A quick glance at the index, and it is immediately clear that Sweetness & Light will intrigue: "Benedictine Order" is followed by "Beowulf"; "mormons" by "Morocco", "Moscow", "moths" and "mummies", while it concludes with "Zeus" and "Zimbabwe". Hattie Ellis's history of the bee crosses great expanses of time and geography.

A quick glance at the index, and it is immediately clear that Sweetness & Light will intrigue: "Benedictine Order" is followed by "Beowulf"; "mormons" by "Morocco", "Moscow", "moths" and "mummies", while it concludes with "Zeus" and "Zimbabwe". Hattie Ellis's history of the bee crosses great expanses of time and geography.

Her book begins with the evolution of bees some 200 million years ago, as revealed by insects encased in amber. She goes on to describe in one short chapter the thousands of years during which primitive humans hunted bees to gather honey, as evident in cave paintings. Ellis then gives an account of the development of beekeeping with early agriculture, and the Egyptian fascination with bees. She moves swiftly on to beekeeping in medieval Europe, the Enlightenment obsession with beehive observation, and the transportation of the bee to the New World with colonial expansion. Sweetness & Light ends with a description of contemporary research on bees and their growing importance in alternative medicine.

Ellis explores the overlapping symbolic and metaphorical, and religious and political, significance attached to bees. The rich allegorical functions of the beehive have historically infected the way we perceive bees. For instance, the gender of the ruler bee has shifted according to the monarch in charge. "In the court of Charles II, the royal beekeeper Moses Rusden argued that the ruling bee was a king," despite prior evidence that clearly showed the ruler produced eggs.

The book is part travelogue. Ellis recounts her visits to apiarists from Tanzania, Crete and New Zealand to Paris and New York, and to a honey supplier in her home town of Lewes. Honey is a local and a global food, while bees have the power to captivate curious minds.

Tales of pioneering bee enthusiasts are particularly interesting. William Cotton was an eccentric Victorian apiarist who spent years developing a safe way to transport bees by ship from Britain to New Zealand. He succeeded but his efforts sent him mad, and he ended his days in a Quaker-run asylum in Chiswick. More recently, Brother Adam was a Benedictine monk who dedicated his life at a Dartmoor monastery to breeding hardy, gentle bees. His greatest success, the Buckfast bee, is one of the most popular today.

Ellis concentrates more on honey than on wax. Her chapter on the importance of beeswax candles in the Catholic Church is a bit rushed. In fact, she covers so much ground that her descriptions become, at times, too fleeting. Her discussion of the poetic influence of bees on Yeats and Plath is particularly hurried.

Sweetness & Light tries to tell the full story of the intimate relationship between humans and the bee. Like the densely packed honeycomb of the hive, her book is jam-packed with information, ideas, stories and questions. If you accept its inevitable sketchiness, it becomes fascinating.

Comments