The politics of bees (1744)


Μelisselogia: or, The female monarchy. Being an enquiry into the nature, order, and government of bees … observation and experience.

Published: London, N. Thorley and J. Davidson.

Date: 1744

Tall 8vo (225 × 140 mm), pp. xliii, [3], 206 (missing final blank); engraved frontispiece, and four engraved plates, one folding showing the author in his study looking for a queen among a group of stupefied bees on his desk; occasional light foxing with title-page and frontispiece a little dust stained; a tall uncut copy, very good in modern full panelled calf with red morocco lettering-piece, the spine in compartments with raised bands.

British Bee Books 97; ESTC T98162.

First edition of Thorley's work pioneering the ‘humane’ treatment of bees. Like Joseph Warder before him, Thorley’s title (and work) makes explicit reference to the ongoing early eighteenth century debates about gender difference, social hierarchy and the nature of monarchy. Warder argued from the state and condition of bees that monarchy was the natural condition of human society too, and in this work Thorley speaks among other things of ‘Their [bees’] great affection, love and loyalty to their lawful sovereign (being all under the government of one monarch).’ (Thorley, p. 7) He writes of the bees’ colony as a ‘state’ entirely dependent on the authority of its queen, and ascribes to the bees moral virtues fitting for the perfect ordering of such a state, at length in separate named sections describing their industry and patience, justice and honesty, temperance and sobriety, chastity, neatness, decency, sympathy and mutual assistance: to wit all the virtues of a good eighteenth century housewife. Thorley’s title is a conscious reference to Charles Butler’s groundbreaking work of 1609 The feminine monarchy, or a treatise concerning bees, in which work Butler similarly praises bees' 'government, loyaltie, art, industrie' and other aspects of their 'admirable nature'. (British Bee Books, p. 18) It is interesting that in the same year Bazin, in his dialogue on bees, remarks more accurately that these virtues exist in appearance only, and that far from having any authority, the Queen and her workers act on what we would now call instinct alone: 'if she reigns, 'tis over subjects, who every moment know, that the good of their society demands what they perform; and who therefore never fail to do it. They never have occasion to receive orders. In this state every one, whether monarch or subject, pursues their original design, from which they never vary.' (Gilles Augustin Bazin, The natural history of bees, 1744, p. 21) ‘Thorley’s secret was the puffball narcotic [used to sedate the bees seen on his desk in the folding engraved plate], which he used when uniting colonies; its use was mentioned in 1597 by Gerard and had long been practised in the Netherlands. Of English writers, Thorley was [also] the first to mention having found wax scales in the pockets of worker bees.’ (British Bee Books, p. 82) ‘The original frontispiece [present in this copy] was a copy of Cesi’s three bees – the first drawing of bees made with the aid of a microscope, 1625 … Thorley’s son altered the frontispiece of the second ed. so that he could use it as a trade card.’ (ibid.) Federico Cesi (1585-1630), founder of the Accademia dei Lincei, made the drawings employed here using the compound microscope designed and built by Galileo in 1624 and given to him in September of that year. Galileo, having made two, gave the other Cardinal Zollern. A pencil note to the front pastedown indicates that the present copy was bound by Bernard Middleton in 1981.

Very good

Full calf