The work known as Feminine Monarchie was first published in 1609 by Charles Butler went through a number of editions during the course of the seventeenth century in England. The original 1609 edition was entitled 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 Subject. Another edition was published in 1623, this time with a new title: The Feminine Monarchie, or The History of Bees: Shewing Their Admirable Nature, and Properties, Their Generation, and Colonies, their Gouernment, Loyaltie, Art, Industrie, Enemies, Warres, Magnanimitie, &c. Together With the Right Ordering of Them From Time to Time; And the Sweet Profit Arising Thereof. This edition would be re-printed under the same title in 1634. Three years later, in 1637, Butler’s book was anthologized by Gervase Markham in a large collection entitled Cheape and Good Husbandry for the Well-Ordering of All Beasts and Fowles, and For the General Cure of Their Diseases. Lastly, in 1673 and again in 1682, Butler’s book would appear, this time in Latin translation (of the 1623 edition) with the title Monarchia Foeminina, sive, Apum Historia.
Rather than presenting an exception, Butler was but the first in an entire discourse on bees and English politics in the seventeenth century. In 1637, the same year in which Markham’s Cheape and Good Husbandry was published, a book by Richard Remnant appeared under the title A Discourse or Historie of Bees: Shewing Their Nature and Usage, and the Great Profit of Them. A second discourse – on diseases affecting various “smutty wheat” – was appended. In the mid sixteen-fifties, a couple of books returned to the political theme. 1655 saw the publication of The Reformed Common-Wealth of Bees written by Samuel Hartlib (the elder) as a series of letters to his son, Sammuel Hartlib, Esq. In 1657 Samuel Purchas published 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. Purchas’s work contained two appendices, one of which concerned “meditations, and observations theological and moral on that subject.”
A third resurgence of interest in the relation between politics and bees occurs in the sixteen-eighties immediately prior to the Glorious Revolution. Of particular importance and interest is Moses Rusden, the royal beemaster’s, A Full Discovery of Bees: Treating of Their Nature, Government, Generation & Preservation of the Bee published in 1685. As mentioned above, Butler’s Feminine Monarchie would also appear in a new Latin edition in 1682.
A concern with bees wasn’t limited to the royal beekeepers, but was also taken up seriously by political theorists. Hobbes presents a case in point where the bee qua social or political animal appears in all three of his major political treatises. While overtly discussing Aristotle’s classification of the bee as a political or social animal in Politics and The History of Animals, Hobbes is just as likely addressing himself to people like Butler and Rusden.
A passage regarding bees first appears in The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic written in 1640 (xix, ¶4-5):
And supposing how great a number soever of men assembled together for their mutual defence, yet shall not the effect follow, unless they all direct their actions to one and the same end; which direction to one and the same end is that which, chap. XII, sect. 7, is called consent. This consent (or conchord) amongst so many men, though it may be made by the fear of a present invader, or by the hope of a present conquest, or booty; and endure as long as that action endureth; nevertheless, by the diversity of judgments and passions in so many men contending naturally for honour and advantage one above another: it is impossible, not only that their consent to aid each other against an enemy, but also that the peace should last between themselves, without some mutual and common fear to rule them.
But contrary hereunto may be objected, the experience we have of certain living creatures irrational, that nevertheless continually live in such good order and government, for their common benefit, and are so free from sedition and war amongst themselves, that for peace, profit, and defence, nothing more can be imaginable. And the experience we have in this, is in that little creature the bee, which is therefore reckoned amongst animalia politica. Why therefore may not men, that foresee the benefit of concord, continually maintain the same without compulsion, as well as they? To which I answer, that amongst other living creatures, there is no question of precedence in their own species, nor strife about honour or acknowledgment of one another’s wisdom, as there is amongst men; from whence arise envy and hatred of one towards another, and from thence sedition and war. Secondly, those living creatures aim every one at peace and food common to them all; men aim at dominion, superiority, and private wealth, which are distinct in every man, and breed contention. Thirdly, those living creatures that are without reason, have not learning enough to espy, or to think they espy, any defect in the government; and therefore are contented therewith; but in a multitude of men, there are always some that think themselves wiser than the rest, and strive to alter divers ways; and that causeth war. Fourthly, they want speech, and are therefore unable to instigate one another to faction, which men want not. Fifthly, they have no conception of right and wrong, but only of pleasure and pain, and therefore also no censure of one another, nor of their commandeer, as long as they are themselves at ease; whereas men that make themselves judges of right and wrong, are then least at quiet, when they are most at ease. Lastly, natural concord, such as is amongst those creatures, is the work of God by the way of nature; but concord amongst men is artificial, and by way of covenant. And therefore no wonder if such irrational creatures, as govern themselves in multitude, do it much more firmly than mankind, that do it by arbitrary institution.
Essentially the same argument appears in De Cive (chap. V, ¶4-5), but with a slightly different preamble:
Among the animals which Aristotle calls political he counts not only Man but many others too, including the Ant, the Bee, etc. For although they are devoid of reason, which would enable them to make agreements and submit to government, still by their consenting, i.e. by desiring and avoiding the same objects, they so direct their actions to a common end that their swarms are not disturbed by sedition. Yet their swarms are still not commonwealths, and so the animals themselves should not be called political; for their government is only an accord, or many wills with one object, not (as a commonwealth needs) one will. It is true that among creatures who live by sense and appetite alone, accord of feelings is so lasting that nothing but their natural appetite is needed to maintain it and thus to keep peace among them. But it is otherwise with men.
A similar set of arguments appears in chapter xvii, ¶6-12 of Leviathan, this time with the following preamble: “It is true that certain living creatures (as bees and ants) live sociably one with another (which are therefore by Aristotle numbered amongst political creatures), and yet have no other direction than their particular judgments and appetites, nor speech whereby one of them can signify to another what he thinks expedient for the common benefit; and therefore some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do the same.”
Regarding the bee, Keith Thomas, in his Man and the Natural World (1983), recounts the following anecdote: “The ancient parallel between human society and the beehive was never more popular than in the Stuart period, when numerous published treatises on bee-keeping gave as much attention to the insects’ political virtues as to their practical utility. [...] Writers laid heavy emphasis on the hive’s monarchical structure, though the embarassing discovery that their monarch was not a king, as had always been assumed, but a queen, remained controversial until the 1740s. ‘A Queen-Bee,’ explained an encyclopedia in 1753, was the ‘term given by late writers to what used to be called the King-Bee.’”
More on Hobbes and bees – and wolves – later.