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