The Ox-Born Bee

Excursions into art and science

Tag: bees

Inside the Minds of Animals

Here’s a short “lesson” on animal minds I wrote for TED-Ed. Definitely a challenge condensing this huge topic into 750 words, but a lot of fun working with the staff and animators at TED, from concept to final execution. Try to spot the octopus making a PB&J!

Re-homing a colony of bees at the SEEd Garden (click, or see below for video)

Re-homing a colony of bees at the SEEd Garden (click, or see below for video)

This is a little video of our most recent beehive re-homing at the CLU SEEd Project Garden.  We started keeping bees there a couple of years ago and we’ve since been trying to grow our apiary by rescuing local swarms and relocating unwanted colonies of bees. We do this instead of splitting or dividing hives or buying queens with “nucs,” or starter colonies of bees.

It’s been our mission to connect with local people with bee “problems” but who are nevertheless interested in saving bees rather than exterminating them. So our bees are mutts–wild or feral colonies that haven’t been bred to any specifications. They’re certainly “africanized” (as are around 90% of colonies in the Southwest) but this just means we can’t necessarily predict their behavior. They’re also native to the area, so we know they can survive in this climate and we don’t have to go out of our way to support them.

So far we’ve had some successes and some failures. Feral swarms, or homeless bees, don’t typically hang around, so we more or less gave up on collecting them. Better to re-home an existing colony that has established itself and so has a reason to stay. Established colonies are also survivors.

We’ve relocated bees from an old art installation on campus, a local family’s shed where we had to cut out the floor to get them, a water meter box, and now a local gardener’s worm bin. Maybe one day we’ll rescue a colony from the head of an ox.

The Wax of Philosophy

Solar wax melter

Processing old beeswax

I love Descartes’s description of beeswax, and while I just talked about it in my last post, I thought it was appropriate to invoke it again, since just yesterday my students and I cobbled together a DIY solar wax melter from bits and pieces around the CLU SEEd Project garden.

Making wax is pretty resource intensive for bees, so commercial beekeepers use special centrifuge machines to spin the honey out of the comb while preserving the wax. But since we’re not super concerned with efficiency at our garden, we just let the bees build anew. When we harvest honey, we cut out the honeycomb from the hive frames and simply crush it up in a bucket with a stick to release the honey from the wax. We then let gravity strain the honey from the crushed slurry of wax and pollen and dead bees. We store the old wax in buckets until we have enough to melt down and re-use. We’ll soon use the pure wax to make useful things like lip balm and candles. A poet friend told me yesterday that when she makes chapbooks, she uses beeswax to coat the threads to preserve them.

To build the melter, I found an old window pane in a construction dumpster, and my students raided the science lab for styrofoam from specimen shipments. (The glass gathers heat while the styrofoam holds it in the box.) We glued the foam into a cardboard box and lined the interior with aluminum foil to help concentrate the sunlight. This whole setup fits inside an extra beehive so we can slot it in and out as we need it. Then I made a screen out of muslin to filter out the impurities from the old beeswax we’ve been collecting from our beehives over the last year or so. Voila! After a few hours in the hot sun, the wax melted through the muslin filter and we’re left with a block of Descartes’s wax, which “still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it was gathered.”

In addition to its odor, I was also struck with the golden, buttery color of the pure wax, freed from the impurities of age and use. Beeswax starts its life a light, translucent yellow, but within a few weeks turns a richer amber. After a few months of use, it loses its translucency and gains an umber color and grainy, opaque texture. After years and years of holding honey and pollen and brood, it turns a deep brown. But with age the wax can also harbor disease, so it’s good now and again to remove old comb and force the bees to make fresh wax. The bright yellow coloring of the filtered wax compared to the crud makes it look like we’ve resurrected that young, pure stuff fresh from the body of the bee.

Descartes’s description captures the sensory richness of beeswax, particularly its unique odor and texture and plasticity. He’s right that there is something special out it, and it’s a fitting material for his thought experiment, and fitting, too, that the famous and foundational cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) should have been inspired by thinking about the properties of beeswax.

I like working with bees as much as talking about them and philosophizing about them. And I like the idea of turning Descartes’s thought experiment into Chapstick–a little reminder that there is philosophy everywhere, even a little on my lips. But it’s also a reminder that thinking about the world may not be enough: there were some bees that made Descartes’s wax, and there was some beekeeper that cared for them and rendered their wax and suffered their stings.


Wax Impressions

Smart wax, honeycomb

The venerable institution of higher learning I Fucking Love Science reposted a TED-ed video called “Why Do Honeybees Love Hexagons” that raises some interesting questions about the thinking habits of bees. In it, educators Zach Patterson and Andy Peterson contend that honeybees are “excellent mathematicians.” Not only can they “calculate angles,” but they can “comprehend the roundness of the earth.”

Claims about the geometrical genius of bees have been pretty standard in descriptions of bees since antiquity. In describing the wax structure or hexagonal comb characteristic of beehives, first-century Roman natural historian Pliny wrote, “all cells are hexagonal, each side being the work of one of the bee’s six feet.” 1 Writers of a medieval bestiary asked, “What architect taught them to fit together six-sided chambers with their sides undistinguishably equal?” 2 The Italian Renaissance philosopher Federico Cesi claimed that “people praise the architecture and mathematics of the bees, and those are disciplines in which so many men are unskilled.” 3 Indeed, waxed Charles Darwin, “he must be a dull man who can examine the exquisite structure of a comb, so beautifully adapted to its end, without enthusiastic admiration.” 4

The Hive-Making Instinct

Bees, it has been long known, have managed to figure out that the hexagon is the most efficient shape not only for storing honey, but for conserving wax. Wax is a precious resource: bees produce it by processing honey in their own bodies and excreting wax from glands on their abdomen. It takes 7 or 8 pounds of honey to produce a single pound of wax, and it takes the nectar of something like 2 million flowers to produce a single pound of honey. A single bee in its lifetime will produce only around 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey. This means that a pound of wax requires the lifetime labor of around 7300 bees visiting 15 or 16 million flowers, if my math is correct (but I’m no bee so double check this. 5

Darwin first speculated that bees might have evolved their economical engineering instinct through natural selection. Wax production is a key limitation on bee colony success: it makes sense that the colonies that stored the most honey with the least wax would have a survival advantage. And over time, this very material advantage would be passed on to future colonies in the form of higher reproductive success rates, which would in turn result in selection for instincts that improved upon the hive design until it reached maximum efficiency:

The motive power of the process of natural selection having been economy of wax; that individual swarm which wasted least honey in the secretion of wax, having succeeded best, and having transmitted by inheritance its newly acquired economical instinct to new swarms, which in their turn will have had the best chance of succeeding in the struggle for existence. 6

That’s a very different way to describe the hive-making instinct than saying, as the TED video does, that bees have managed to “figure out” the best way to make a hive: they first “decide what the cells should be made out of,” they “may have noticed problems in their design,” and finally they “found that the hexagon was the ideal storage space” after much “trial and error.” This kind of language makes it seem that hive construction is the result of conscious choices on the part of bees: they learn and pass this learning on to the next generation.

At heart lies the question of whether bees can learn, decide, and comprehend the way we do, as the TED video states and as thinkers have thought for ages. That kind of anthropomorphic language would seem to take us far afield of natural selection. In other words, can we really understand what it means, as they say, “to think like a bee?” Or is any such attempt merely an exercise in anthropomorphism, in imposing human thought processes on an inhuman world?

In this, Darwin is little help, since he himself might have introduced a ghost in the machine–that is, he might have suggested something like intelligence where there is none. Like the TED video, Darwin argues that the cell-making instinct is not perfect. Bees make mistakes. They start over:

It was really curious to note in cases of difficulty, as when two pieces of comb met at an angle, how often the bees would pull down and rebuild in different ways the same cells, sometimes recurring to a shape which they had first rejected. 7

If bees can make mistakes, then they are not simply machines outputting pre-programmed behaviors. Honeycomb is not produced with machine precision–it’s a process of trial and error and craftsmanship. Bees inherit the behavior of economic comb-making, but that doesn’t mean that they do it perfectly every time. This makes it seem like bees are, to some degree, designing their cells.

Melipona beecheii

Melipona beecheii (Darwin’s Melipona domestica)

For Darwin, the important thing to show in his chapter on “Instinct” was that natural selection can produce even highly specialized behaviors like the comb-making instinct in bees, or the slave-making instinct in ants. These are the hard cases–that is, a potential detractor to his theory of natural selection could argue that no way could such complex and specialized behaviors be produced by increments over time. For what would be the stages on the way to such apparently perfect products like the hexagonal, mathematically precise cell of the honeycomb?

Melipona beecheii comb

Melipona beecheii honeycomb

As evidence, Darwin examines the “imperfect” comb of Melipona domestica (renamed Melipona beecheii), a hive-making stingless bee native to Mexico. These honey-making bees produce round honeycomb rather than hexagonal, which Darwin saw as an intermediary example between the more architecturally advanced Apis mellifera, or honeybee, and the more primitive, globular structures of bumblebees, who don’t produce honey. These intermediary and primitive stages show that something as complex as the cell-making instinct of the honeybee could evolve from simpler nest-building instincts. A “mistake” in the craftsmanship of honeycomb could well be a beneficial mutation that leads to improved design.

bumble bee nest

Bumble bee nest

As interested as he was in his bees (and his worms and his beetles), Darwin was using such behaviors to make a larger point, about natural selection’s almost limitless ability to produce complex phenomena, like instincts. But even he couldn’t resist the comparison to human workmanship:

We hear from mathematicians that bees have practically solved a recondite problem, and have made their cells of the proper shape to hold the greatest possible  amount of honey…. It has been remarked that a skilful [sic] workman, with fitting tools and measures, would find it very difficult to make cells of wax of the true form, though this is perfectly effected by a crowd of bees working in a dark hive. 8

The intelligence of bees is up for debate, and such anthropomorphic language only muddies the waters. Do bees calculate? Do they decide? Are they mathematicians? Geniuses of engineering? Or are these simply, as one IFLS commenter notes, “genetically encoded behaviour pattern[s], that might seem intelligent,” in which case insect “intelligence” is “a mere illusion”?

smart wax, circle combSmart Wax

Or is the answer something in between? A 2013 study in the Journal of the Royal Society: Interface on “Honeybee Combs: How the Circular Cells Transform into Rounded Hexagons,” by B. L. Karihaloo, K. Zhang and J. Wang, suggests that the shape of the honeycomb has less to do with deliberation or even skill than with the physical properties of wax. Bees, the writers observed, first create cylindrical shapes, like bundles of straws (see [a]). The size of the honeycomb cell is the same as the size of young nurse bees that make the cells. So in essence they make the cells by proscribing a circle their bodies. Honeycomb takes on its characteristic hexagonal shape only later, because of the way wax settles into this shape after being heated to a molten state by the bodies of the bees (b). 9

(And in my own unscientific observations as an amateur beekeeper, I have noticed, too, that beeswax in the hive takes on different qualities and dimensions according to age: for example newly made comb begins at an angle, with cell openings facing fairly sharply skyward, at about around a 45 degree angle. As this comb is filled with honey, it tends to settle at 90 degrees, presumably from the weight of its contents and the interior temperature of the hive. Bees “know” this feature of wax construction beforehand and build accordingly.)

The value of the hexagon in the human imagination seems greater, however, than the circle, which is why the architect metaphor persists. Hexagons suggest geometry and calculation, things possible only through reason, deliberation, and planning. It suggests intelligence. But the metaphor has value, ironically, because hexagons do not generally occur in nature: they could be produced only by an intelligence that reminds us of our own. Drawing a circle by spinning around in the same spot is a primitive behavior, easily explained by instinct. However, it’s also far less humanizing to argue that the “intelligence” might be in the matter itself: that the form of hexagon is self-organizing due to properties of wax. It’s as different as arguing that bees are “industrious insect architects” (TED talk) and claiming that bees “heat up wax during the building process, which then flows thermoplastically into regular hexagons as a liquid equilibrium process.” 10

There are lots of other reasons for thinking that bees think in ways that might be familiar to us–bees, it has been shown, can learn from watching other bees; they can make predictions about the location of food sources; and they can make decisions about flight patterns. But anthropomorphizing bees doesn’t get us any closer to understanding intelligence in nature. Bees don’t have to be individually bright, they don’t have to be tiny humans: to call wax structures self-organizing and not the product of complex geometrical thinking on the part of bees is not to take away from the intelligence of bees. Rather, it’s to broaden what we mean by “intelligence” to include forms of “thought” and “mind” that do not look like ours, and which are not limited to the bee’s brain, but which extend beyond the bee to include its habitat and environment. Mind might come in different varieties, and wax might be one of them.

Think of it this way: What is beeswax?  It’s a bio-material for building construction produced through the collective organization of thousands of bees seamlessly interacting with each other and with their environment, which–partly through bees’ inherited behaviors, partly through their individual agency, and partly through the self-organizing tendency of matter–is molded into useful shapes and patterns, one of whose function is to act as incubators for more bees. That’s pretty smart to me. In fact it’s fucking genius–not because bees “do” math, but because bees facilitate the math that nature wants to manifest: it’s just as easy to say wax “wants” to be a hexagon as it is to say that bees “do” math. But both would be wrong. They’re anthropomorphisms, attempts to describe something that might not be expressible in human terms.

Hot Wax

It’s ironic that Rene Descartes, one of the architects of the Enlightenment, saw warmed-up beeswax and came to the exact opposite conclusion: namely, that mind exists independent of nature, of matter. In his Divine Meditations II, in which he sought to provide a solid basis for reason, Descartes hypothesized that mind alone is responsible for the impressions made on it by things in the environment. His illustration was wax, which produces different impressions on the mind according to its different physical states, such as when it’s cold or hot:

Take for example, this piece of wax; it is quite fresh, having been but recently taken from the beehive; it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it was gathered; its color, figure, size, are apparent ( to the sight); it is hard, cold, easily handled; and sounds when struck upon with the finger. In fine, all that contributes to make a body as distinctly known as possible, is found in the one before us. But, while I am speaking, let it be placed near the fire–what remained of the taste exhales, the smell evaporates, the color changes, its figure is destroyed, its size increases, it becomes liquid, it grows hot, it can hardly be handled, and, although struck upon, it emits no sound. Does the same wax still remain after this change? It must be admitted that it does remain; no one doubts it, or judges otherwise. What, then, was it I knew with so much distinctness in the piece of wax? Assuredly, it could be nothing of all that I observed by means of the senses, since all the things that fell under taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and yet the same wax remains.

His conclusion from this experiment was that the only certain foundation of knowledge is our own mind: “I must, therefore, admit that I cannot even comprehend by imagination what the piece of wax is, and that it is the mind alone which perceives it.” We can celebrate Descartes for freeing us from some bad old ideas, but we can blame him for turning mind into pure form, distinct from matter: In Descartes’s dualism, mind triumphs over matter, which is merely inert, mindless stuff.

This is what anthropomorphism does: it understands mind as a purely formal quality that animals either possess or don’t.  This is a naive way of conceptualizing the relationship between mind and nature. Anthropomorphism naturalizes Descartes’s dualism as a simple metaphor, a figure of speech: the bee as architect, wax as lifeless stuff. Such easy figures of language preserve the integrity of the human mind against the human-decentering prospect that mind comes in different forms, only one of which looks and thinks like ours. Like Descartes’s dualism, anthropomorphism keeps us ignorant of the ways mind and nature connect. To graduate beyond this naive thinking, it’s more useful–and more awesome, to this mind–to consider, rather, mind in nature: that wax–that self-organizing collaborative creation of bees and flowers–is “smart.” No doubt we have a lot to learn from bees, but my guess is that none of it is about our own minds. In a beehive, wax may not be a metaphor, but it does matter.


  1. Pliny, Natural History: A Selection. Trans. John F. Healy. Oxford: Penguin, 29.
  2. T. H. White, The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. 1954. New York: Dover, 1984. 156
  3. Federico Cesi. Apiarium. Trans. Clara Sue Kidwell. Dissertation: U Oklahoma, 149.
  4. Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray, 1859. 224.
  5. Actual mathematician, friend, colleague, and possible bee Mike Gagliardo has corrected my math on this. Originally I was off by a factor of 10! No bee indeed.
  6. Darwin, 235.
  7. Darwin, 232.
  8. Darwin, 224
  9. See Karihaloo et al., “Honeybee combs: how the circular cells transform into rounded hexagons.” Journal of the Royal Society: Interface 10 (July 2013).
  10. Pirk et al., “Honeybee combs: construction through a liquid equilibrium process?” Naturwissenschaften (2004) 91:350–353.

Cesi’s Bees

Cesi’s bees are hybrids of poetry and nature. Their hive is language. Their keeper, Federico Cesi (1585-1630), was an Italian Renaissance scientist, humanist, and founder of one of the first scientific societies, the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of Lynxes), devoted to the empirical study of nature using the most advanced observational tool available, the microscope.

Cesi’s microscope was given to him by Galileo Galilei, who joined the Accademia in 1611. Francesco Stelluti, Cesi’s friend, made the first engravings of observations from this microscope in 1625. 1 These images were of bees. Cesi wrote about them in his work on bees, the Apiarium (1625). He planned to compose an entire zoo encompassing all of the natural world, a Theatrum totius naturae along the lines of his predecessors: Aristotle’s fourth-century BCE Historia Animalium and Roman historian Pliny’s first century Natural History. The Apiarium was the only exhibit Cesi completed before his death.

Like those early natural historians, Cesi was a namer and cataloguer and classifier. The opening pages of the Apiarium contain various brackets classifying types of bees (e.g., “solitary” versus “civil”), their character (e.g., “stinging”), and their products (e.g., honey, wax) with greater and greater detail. His two chief classes are of course the honey-making bees, which are either wild (“solitary,” “forest-dwelling”) or civil (“urban-dwelling”). Among the urban bees, or those “who live together with work and duties,” there are those “who are accustomed to make honey in the homes of hospitable men.” These bees are “more humane, happier.” These are distinguished from “freer” bees, or those “who wander.” And among these wanderers, “tree-wanderers” are distinguished from “companions of men.” Solitary bees, by contrast, are “noted by a sound by which they seem powerful,” “Perhaps as if they are singing?” 2

Despite the folk charm of these categories, the Apiarium‘s interest in classification makes it indisputably a work of natural history. Cesi is interested in the character of bees. They are models of virtue—“guileless, pious, thrifty, celibate.” In this respect, Cesi owes much to Pliny, whose bees “recognize only what is in the common interest,” “note the idleness of slackers,” and will not attack a beekeeper “if they feel he is their ally.” 3

But in addition to these moral and folk qualities, and unlike Pliny, whose descriptions seem to come from reading rather than observation, Cesi’s descriptions are enhanced by his new technology: “If only you could have used the microscope, if you could have used the telescope, what could you have said” about the bees?” 4, Cesi asks of his predecessors. That their aspect is the “form of a bull” and that they sport “the mane of a lion”? 5 That their eyes “appear as beautiful golden dice boxes”? 6 That they are “multi-tongued”? 7 That their tongues are as “little spoons”? The microscope feeds his delight in metaphors, analogies, puns, namings and re-namings.

Cesi’s puts his microscope in the service of poetry. For just as the microscope allows him to see the minute structures of the bee, Cesi’s devices of language allow him to see the bee as constellation of natural processes that belong to the order of the cosmos itself. Bees, he says, are “first dew-gathering, flower-gathering; then they are honey-flowing, honeycomb flowing, the mother of honey, or, in filling themselves, the effectrix of divine honey.” 8 From dew to flower to honey to comb to mother to the divine, Cesi’s language fashions a chain of affinity that begins with the minutiae of nature and ends with a divine intelligence. This particular literary device is called antonomasia. It’s a kind of metonymy or substitution of an epithet or description (“effectrix of divine honey”) for a proper name (“bee”). We give the name “bee” to that creature that ranges along a continuum from dew to honey, from nature to cosmos. Like a microscope that reveals the minute parts invisible to the naked eye, this tool reveals all that the word bee contains and mystifies.

Likewise, when Cesi fashions a chain from bee to builder:

Marvel at the most artful plan of the substructures and of the suspended buildings, the joining and equality of the sides without any weight or danger of collapse…. There are royal cells, citizens’ cells, plebian cells and servants’ cells placed in order, each formed in a manner in accord with the dignity and worthiness of the inhabitant and with the plan of the work itself…. From this Antonomasticus we have the name builder in admiration. 9

From this list of bees’ architectural practices (from “substructures” and “suspended buildings” to the variety of cells) we get the name builder, an honored category and profession. Naming the bee thus invokes, through a kind of oratory apostrophe (“look to”; “marvel at”), our admiration and affection. To name is to love.

Still a free-floating instrument in 1625, unattached to a scientific program or method, the microscope is for a language-lover like Cesi a means to make better—more minute, more joyful, more virtuous—metaphors. And indeed it generates its own puns: “under the polished glass rise the greatest marvels and the eye learns to magnify its faith.” 10. The pun on “magnify” is important: revealing the aspect of the bee reveals faith—poetry joins science and religion, an important synthesis in light of the Catholic church’s hostility to the Copernican views of his colleague Galileo.

Where these aspects of Cesi’s natural history of bees make him a child of antiquity, in other ways Cesi was strikingly far seeing. The microscope may give him more powerful eyes to see the details of specimens, but, he warns, it also disarticulates and separates:

That which is much smaller than what we can know by our senses can become known, and you can study the many little bodies that nature has brought to completion if you apply the microscope. Any time you see many very tiny structures, you exclude many others still beyond these, which flee and elude all the sharpness of the instruments we make. 11

Observing minute features won’t show you the whole. And once divided, such features “seem to be joined with difficulty one to the other.” 12 Language, poetry, corrects the myopia of the microscope, reining in its disjointing effects by rejoining those parts that the instrument divides, like fragments drawn together in a mosaic. It does not occur to Cesi to use the instrument for purely objective purposes, to separate the bee from itself, or from the human world, or from the divine. Cesi’s microscope does not yet take the place of language, as data visualization. Rather, the complex analogies and puns that the instrument makes possible allow Cesi to express greater love for his bees, “sincere affection” made newly visible in its glass. 13

Likewise Cesi, especially in his desire to name the bee as a way to understand its essence, anticipates those later natural historians that developed systems for ordering and naming nature’s profusion, like taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), who gave us binomial nomenclature, the two-word naming system that identifies genus and species (e.g., Homo sapiens). To him we attribute the first systematic methods for naming and classifying, endeavors that gave rise to the discipline of biology.

But naming animals has always been as much art as science. Names often reflect the creativity of their namer, or the history of our knowledge of a creature. Classification is a kind of metaphorization, an acknowledgement that we know things by the names of other things. The Apiarium, and its modern version “apiary,” derives from apis, the latin name for bees preserved in the modern scientific name Apis mellifera—which means honey-bearing bull. WApis, bull deityhy bull? Because the Latin apis comes from the Egyptian bull-god Apis, worshipped at Memphis in the early second millennium BCE, when bees were being shipped on barges up and down the Nile to pollinate crops. It was then believed that bees spontaneously generated from the heads of decaying bulls or oxen, probably because the religious cult of Apis tended to plant flowers in those same heads, which attracted bees, or perhaps because bees in the ancient world were known to build hives in the carcasses of dead, dried animals, lacking other cavities or crevasses. Hence the classical epithet, still extant in Cesi’s time, the ox-born bee (βουγενής; see Harissis).

But Cesi, ever on the lookout for a good pun, also says that “their name seems to tell that they do not have feet” because apes were believed to be born without feet either (a-pes, or without feet, according to Kidwell), which is of course why they hang from trees. 14 The writers of medieval bestiaries, who knew Latin but not Egyptian, may have been partly responsible for this pun and this mythical feature of bees: they called bees apes “either because they cling to things with their feet (a pedibus) or because they are born without feet, for they only grow their feet and wings later on.” 15

(Such names still abound: behold the stupefying Platypus anatinus, that unknowable unnamable swim-walking mosaic of time and extinction, whose name means “flat-footed” and “duck-like,” though it neither has feet nor is a duck, a thing of poetry whose physiology, like its name, seems to exist only in reference to what it is not, like the Giraffa camelopardalis, whose species name means “camel + leopard” because early observers of African wildlife simply combined known creatures to understand one they’d never seen before. And if you think that’s odd, consider the natural history of the unicorn.)

Invoked by our scientific names for things are strange histories of error, belief, and observation. Apis is thus a kind of apostrophe (“marvel at…!”), a wonder word that reveals the relationships of things and other things. The bees are not bees alone: they are tiny bulls and golden lions and divine honey and sky-born dew. When we name something we recall this constellation of relationships to our minds. And just as words are defined by other words, a feature that allows for poetry, Cesi’s bees generate new metaphors.

Naming things, writes Barry Lopez in Crossing Open Ground, is a first step toward understanding: “The quickest door to open in the woods for a child is the one that leads to the smallest room, by knowing the name each thing is called.” But metaphor, he continues, reveals how we are connected to those things. And “it is these relationships, not the things themselves, that ultimately hold the human imagination.” 16. Where we might say Cesi’s microscope shows us the “thing itself,” his metaphors reveal the relationships bound up in the bees–our past and our present relationship to the bee, the quality of our affections.

Speaking of children, naming animals in the garden was the job of Adam–our first classifier. In the garden, Adam didn’t have to think relationships or metaphors, because there were none. Only names. The garden couldn’t have had poetry. Adam simply had to point. It’s only when we left that childish place, and the relationship between names and things weren’t so certain anymore, that we had to invent poetry to remind ourselves of our place in a nature that didn’t care what we called it. Metaphor, we might say, reminds us to love in the face, says Lopez, of “the most insidious of human anxieties, the one that says, you do not belong here.”

Even the botanist Linnaeus, the Adam of modern taxonomy, who tried to tame the profusion of names that had plagued early classifiers whose names for things were essentially long lists of characters, engaged in some creative naming based probably more on his own fecund preoccupations with love than on the occupations of plants when he chose to emphasize sexual characters as the means by which to identify them: classes of plants were organized according to andria (for husband) or gynia (for wife). And despite the scandalous, non-exclusive sex behaviors of plants (diantriatriandria, and so on), his classes persist. 17

Why Linnaeus chose sex characters and not something else says more about him than about plants, and he himself recognized this folk quality of his system. His rival, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wanted to name things not according to visible characters, which might have little to do with the essential nature of an organism, but rather according to those qualities that spoke to the actual relationships of one species to another. That is, he wanted something less “artificial” and more “natural.” Though his was more sophisticated, Buffon’s taxonomical system lost to Linnaeus’s simpler, more childlike binomial system, partly because it was so easy to use and it made anyone into a naturalist. But their questions, and the questions of any taxonomist–and the questions of any poet–are the same: what makes a thing a thing? How are things related? How do we know? And what is that to us?

In the nineteenth century Charles Darwin made these questions all the more challenging. His theory of natural selection depended on the plasticity of biological life, or its ability to shade into new forms, like a word might shade into new meaning, or invoke other words. Concepts like species gave the false sense that organisms didn’t change, which is another way of saying that organisms don’t belong to other organisms, or to their environment. The tendency to modify, to throw off mutations, is a feature of life. These mutations might lead to new varieties and eventually to new species. Life, we might say, behaves a lot like poetry. So in order to break open our minds about how life actually works—that all is connected to all—he took to task the whole project of naming and categorizing, claiming that “a well-marked variety may be justly called an incipient species.” 18 His argument in On the Origin of Species (1859) was aimed at the army of catalogue-mad naturalists that took their cues from Linnaeus and obsessively classified and named because they believed in the fixity of forms, not in evolution. If we let our tools—our classifications—become reality, we lose the sense of life itself. Instead, he emphasized the “complex web of relations” that connects things “remote in the scale of nature,” like how the local population of cats which, “through the intervention first of mice and then of bees,” might determine “the frequency of certain flowers…!” 19

The problem of how to know one species from another, and how to classify, has reached its pinnacle in contemporary biology, which acknowledges, like Darwin did over a century ago, that “species” is an arbitrary distinction. Scientists now entertain around 26 definitions of the term “species”—based on qualities like the ability to interbreed. But those qualities, while useful (just as Linnaeus’s sex characters of plants was useful), do little more than place a man-made barrier between one thing and another. Defining a species as, for example, the ability to produce fertile offspring is another version of Linnaeus’s husband/wife flowers. And anyway how would we know which extinct species preserved in a fossil could reproduce with another fossil species?

Biologists now refer to “species concepts,” acknowledging that the concept is a tool, and there are multiple tools, depending on what you’re after. Any given designation of a species is conjecture. We have to look at the bigger picture. Modern DNA and chemical analysis have certainly taken us far beyond the realm of observing and listing anatomical characters, and they are certainly more precise. But even if DNA or chemistry could tell us where one species begins and ends, unlike those earlier naming systems they can’t tell us what a species means to us, the namers, who look at nature to see our place in the universe. Perhaps this is what Cesi thought as he looked at his bees through his microscope—an instrument as powerful in its day as DNA analysis is today. But he warned that the instrument was not enough. In this, Cesi is not a scientist, but a poet of nature enamored of a new engine for language. His microscope has not yet occasioned a scientific revolution, as it will in the hands of other instrument-loving scientists, like Jan Swammerdam or Robert Hooke. For him it is a tool that does more than describe: its new analogies reveal the relationship of the bee to a cosmic order, and how we might fit into it. Cesi’s bees are a case study in the language of science—lessons for an instrument-obsessed and language-deficient age.


  1. Stelluti’s engraving of microscopic image of bees were made at magnification 10x. The image found is in Persio tradotto in verso schiolto e dichiarato da Francesco Stelluti Accad. Linceo da Fabriano. Rome: Giacomo Mascardi, 1630.
  2. Federico Cesi. The Apiarium. Trans. Clara Sue Kidwell. Appendix to The Accademia dei Lincei and the Apiarium: A Case Study of the Activities of a Seventeenth-Century Society. Dissertation. Norman, OK: U Oklahoma, 1970.
  3. Pliny. Natural History: A Selection.  Trans. Robert Healy. Penguin, 1991. 11-12, 25
  4. Cesi, 261
  5. Cesi, 277
  6. Cesi, 263
  7. Cesi, 261
  8. Cesi, 157
  9. Cesi, 149
  10. Cesi, 133
  11. Cesi, 271
  12. Cesi, 263/5
  13. Cesi, 283
  14. Cesi, 279
  15. T. H. White. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. Dover, 2010. 153).
  16. Barry Lopez. “Children in the Woods.” Crossing Open Ground. Vintage, 1989. 147-52.
  17. Paul Lawrence Farber, Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E.O. Wilson. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 9
  18. Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: John Murray, 1859. 52
  19. Darwin, 72

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