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The feminine monarchy, or, the history of bees

The College’s beekeeping society may be interested to learn that the Library has a copy of the first substantial work on beekeeping to be written and published in the English language. Charles Butler’s Feminine monarchy made an extraordinary contribution to the literature on apiculture when it first appeared in 1609. The book established in popular consciousness the relatively recent discovery (observed by Luis Mendez de Torres in 1586, and confirmed by Swammerdam’s microscopic dissections later in the seventeenth century) that colonies were presided over by a Queen bee rather than a male ruler. Butler described both contemporary methods of keeping bees in traditional domed skep hives and his own proposals for technical improvements.

Title page of 'The feminine monarchy'
The first treatise in English on beekeeping

The Feminine monarchy remained a practical guide for those wanting to keep bees for the next 250 years, until the development of hives with moveable combs changed the practice of beekeeping. The book is divided into ten chapters, covering the nature and properties of bees and their queen, the bee-garden and siting of hives, the construction of the hives themselves, the breeding of bees and drones, swarming and hiving, the work of bees, enemies of bees, how to feed bees, how to remove bees, and the fruit and profit of beekeeping.

Wit and industry
The four orders of bees: princes, officers, plebs and idle drones

The work draws heavily on Butler’s own experience of keeping bees. His observations of bee behaviour were meticulous, and even went so far as to attempt to represent the particular sounds made by a Queen bee who had yet to mate by use of musical notation. In the second edition of his book, he expanded this into a four-part madrigal! It was an innovative way of recording observational data, probably more interesting now as an example of seventeenth-century musical notation, than as a scientific study. Earlier this week it was reported that artificial intelligence is being used in hives to monitor and interpret the way bees buzz (see news story). Listening to the bees is still a smart idea.

The Queen's madrigal
The Queen bee's song - as portrayed by Butler in the form of a madrigal

The Library’s copy is Butler’s revised third edition of 1634, which has an additional interest (and challenge to the reader) in being written entirely in Butler’s revised phonetic spelling. The preceding year, Butler had published an English grammar proposing a new orthography in which words should be written ‘according to đe sound now generally received’. It didn't catch on.


This Special Collections spotlight was contributed on 13 November 2018 by the Special Collections Librarian