“A certaine simple woman having some stals of Bees which yielded not unto her hir desired profit, but did [sicken?] and die of the murraine, made hir moan to another Woman more simple then hir selfe: who gave her counsel to get a consecrated Host, and put it among them. According to whose advice she went to the Priest to receive the host, which after she had done, she kept it in her mouth, and being come home againe she tooke it out, and put it into one of hir Hives. Whereupon the murraine ceased, and the Honie abounded. The Woman therefore lifting up the Hive at the due time to take out the Honie, saw there (most strange to be seene) a Chappell built by the Bees, with an altar in it, the wals adorned by the marvellous skill of Architecture, with windowes conveniently set in their places: also a doore and a steeple with bells. And the Host being laid upon the altar, the Bees making a sweet noise, flew about it.
But whether this doe more argue the supernaturall knowledge and skill of the Bees, or the miraculous power of the Host, or the spirituall craftinesse of him, whose cunning is by the working of Satan with all power and signes and lying wonders, some scrupulous Skeptick may make question.” [sig C 4 v]
My source is Charles Butler’s The feminine monarchie or a treatise concerning bees, and the due ordering of them wherein the truth, found out by experience and diligent observation, discovereth the idle and fondd conceipts, which many haue written anent this subiect. By Char: Butler Magd. At Oxford 1609.
I read the 1623 edition, part of the extensive literature of apiary. Butler is an agreeably fussy author, who arranges his text with meticulous attention: “When you have once, for your satisfaction, perused this Booke, you need not afterward seeke farre for anything therein, whereof you doubt: the Index of the Chapters or Contents of the Booke; and of the Marginall notes, or Contents of the Chapters will readily direct you.” Despite these efforts, he is often quite obscure on the technical details of what he wants his bee-keeper to do, and refers to the months throughout according to the sign of the zodiac (the EEBO copy of the 1623 edition has an early author write out the zodiac opposite the normal names of the months, for easy reference). Butler seems to want to impart, and not impart.
On this story of the Catholic bees, Butler is similarly divided: rather unwilling to deny any miraculous behaviour to the social insects he so much admires, but finally scoffing at the tale as a delusion of Satan.
His book has a dedicatory poem by George Wither:
…Great God Almighty! In thy pretty Bee,
Mine Eie (as written in small letters) sees
An Abstract of that Wisdom, Power and Love,
Which is imprinted on the Heavn’s above…
(etc, one should presumably read ‘bees’ at the end of the first line quoted).
Butler briskly surveys the available bee-books: he cites as an authority Georgius Pictorius
“Whom one T.H. of London translating word for word into English, as well as he could, concealing the authors name, adventured to publish in his owne name”. This would I think be Thomas Hill’s The proffitable arte of gardening …To this annexed, two propre treatises, the one entituled The marueilous gouernment, propertie, and benefite of the bées, with the rare secrets of the honny and waxe (printed from1568 onwards).
After this, he starts off with assertions of the excellence and general political soundness of the bee:
Bees yield great profit with small cost
Bees abhorre idelnesse
Bees have a Common-wealth
Bees always loyall to their Soveraigne
Bees endure no government, but a Monarchie.
And later: “The Bees abhorre as well Polyarchie, as Anarchie, God having shewed in them unto men, and express pattern of A PERFECT MONARCHIE, THE MOST NATURALL AND ABSOLUTE FORME OF GOVERNMENT.”
Butler deals very directly with a major problem about this little creature and its almost ideal commonwealth: he asserts ‘Divers reasons proving the Drone to be the Male’, and freely announces that ‘The male-Bees are subject to the females’. He cites the silly counter-views: “The generall opinion of the Drone is, that he is made of a hony-Bee, that hath lost hir sting.”
Butler compares his bees to the Amazons, and to hawks, where he points out that the female bird is always bigger and better than the male.
His apiary is still very basic, relatively knowledgeable though he is. His hives are still primitive, with no chance to open them (though he does discuss this as a vague possibility). I was pleased to see that Butler thinks of hives that “The best that I have seene are wrought by Thomas May of Sunning, about one mile from Redding”: he was a local man to me here, and speaks of the different flavours of Hampshire honey, depending on the local flora.
He gives rather confusing directions about making ‘armour’ against getting stung, and in the end recommends washing your face and hands with beer and proceeding gently with your hives. More mystifyingly, he recommends chastity and sobriety in the bee-keeper:
“If thou wilt have the favour of thy Bees that they sting thee not, thou must avoid such things as offend them: thou must not be 1) unchaste or 2) uncleanly: for impuritie and sluttishnesse (themselves being most chaste and neat,) they utterly abhorre: thou must not come among them (3) smelling of sweat, or having a stinking breath.”
Most shockingly, in our current anxiety about the world population of bees, Butler was a man of his time when it comes to harvesting the honey, “The Vindemiation or taking of Combes” (the OED first records the word from him): “The most usuall, and generally most usefull manner of taking the Combes, is by killing the Bees.”
The whole swarm is killed – he recommends a fumigation with brimstone. He knows about trying to eject the resident swarm, and about ‘castration’, or cutting into a hive to remove just some of the honey, but he firmly opts for total destruction of the colony. This was normal until the 18th and 19th centuries:
My illustrations are a photograph I took of a swarm of bees invading one of the medieval ‘put-log’ holes in the tower of East Hendred Church, and one of Butler’s odder pages, a song in praise of bees. Butler has listened attentively to the various hums emerging from his hives, and believes that “In the Bees song are the grounds of musicke”. In the first edition of his book he merely scores the various buzzes and hums, the 1623 edition expands into a song set out like other song books of the period, for four singers sitting round the same sheet.
EEBO’s subject search does not seem to throw up another bee book I found, Samuel Purchas’s A theatre of politicall flying-insects wherein especially the nature, the vvorth, the vvork, the wonder, and the manner of right-ordering of the bee, is discovered and described.