The Romance of the Hive

Discover the history of bees and beekeeping through our rare book collections

By University of Reading Special Collections

The management of bees (1834) by Bagster, Samuel, 1800-1835.Original Source: Museum of English Rural Life

Bees under threat

Bees are under threat of extinction from intensive farming, habitat loss, climate change and pesticides, and yet we depend on them to pollinate many of our leading crops. Our book collections reveal the development of our knowledge of bees and beekeeping over more than 500 years.

Ontdekking van de staatkunde der natuur (1764)Original Source: Museum of English Rural Life

Preserving our knowledge of bees

Rare books on bees and beekeeping can be found in our Bee Collection, the Cole Library and in the Cowan Bee Collection (the library of T.W. Cowan and now held by The Museum of English Rural Life). We also hold the papers of the beekeeper and writer, H. Malcolm Fraser (1874 -1970)

Les douze livres de Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella des choses rustiques (1555) by Lucius Junius Moderatus ColumellaOriginal Source: Museum of English Rural Life

Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella's work De re rustica (On rural affairs) is an agricultural manual on animal husbandry, beekeeping and other subjects, written in c. 65-60 BC, and is an important and comprehensive source on agriculture in Ancient Roman times.

Persio; tradotto in verso sciolto e dichiarato da Francesco Stelluti (1630) by Stelluti, Francesco, 1577-1653.Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

Francesco Stelluti’s engraving of a bee observed under a microscope, with enlarged drawings of the bee’s compound eye, tongue and sting, is thought to be first of its kind to appear in a printed book, preceding microscopy works by Athanasius Kircher and Robert Hooke. 

Monarchia fœminina, sive, Apum historia (1673) by Butler, Charles, died 1647.Original Source: Museum of English Rural Life

Charles Butler’s work is one of the greatest books on bees and one of the first substantial works on the subject to be written in the English language. Butler was among the first to state and popularise the discovery that the leader bee was female and the drones were male.

Biblia naturae = Bybel der natuure (1738) by Swammerdam, Jan, 1637-1680.Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

The Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam used a microscope to produce this drawing of the ovaries of the queen honey bee. This presented the first published visual evidence of the egg-laying function of the female queen, disproving theories that the lead or ruler bee was male.

Memoires pour servir à l'histoire des insectes (1742) by Réaumur, René-Antoine Ferchault de, 1683-1757.Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur was a French entomologist, who made a number of important discoveries and observations relating to bees, and developed an observation glass hive to aid his research. 

Nouvelles observations sur les abeilles (1792) by Huber, François, 1750-1831.Original Source: Museum of English Rural Life

François Huber produced pioneering scientific work on the biology and life of honey bees. To enable his research, he designed a leaf hive of 12 wooden frames, hinged together which could be opened like leaves of a book to enable close observation of the activities of the bees.

My bee book (1842) by Cotton, William Charles, 1813-1879.Original Source: Museum of English Rural Life

William Charles Cotton's book on bees contains his letters to cottagers, bee verses and reprints from the works of other writers. There are also details of his plans to introduce bees to New Zealand. Cotton advocated the use of a puff ball narcotic to spare the lives of bees.  

Langstroth on the hive and the honey-bee : a bee keeper's manual (1914) by Langstroth, L. L. (Lorenzo Lorraine), 1810-1895.Original Source: Museum of English Rural Life

Lorenzo L. Langstroth is regarded as the father of American beekeeping. In 1851 he created his movable-frame hive, with hanging frames, in which the bees construct honey-filled combs, which can be easily removed by the beekeeper. This became the model for the modern beehive.  

British bee-keeper's guide book to the management of bees (1903) by Cowan, Thomas William, 1840-1926.Original Source: Museum of English Rural Life

This guide book was Thomas William Cowan’s most successful and influential publication, both in Britain and abroad. Noted for its clear, practical style, the guide was first published in 1881, went through twenty-five editions and was translated into seven different languages.

Persio; tradotto in verso sciolto e dichiarato da Francesco Stelluti (1630) by Stelluti, Francesco, 1577-1653.Original Source: University of Reading Special Collections

Inspiring a better future for everyone

Awareness of bees and their plight will help to secure a better future for bees and everyone, encouraging support for environmental campaigns and the creation of more bee-friendly spaces. Our collections help to raise awareness and inspire interest in these extraordinary insects.

Credits: Story

Discover more

Described as the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world, the Cowan Bee Collection contains around 2,500 book, pamphlet and journal titles relating to bees and beekeeping, including many rare foreign language titles.

The University of Reading Special Collections holds William Charles Cotton’s library as part of the Bee Collection. It comprises 221 volumes of mainly English works, with some French and German, published from 1609 to the 1870s. 

Visit our web pages on the Cole Library, the Cowan Bee Collection and the Bee Collection to learn more about these collections and how to visit us. The cataloguing of the Cowan Bee Collection was generously funded by the Eva Crane Trust.

Crane, Eva. The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting. (Routledge, [1999]

Hawker, Robert J. The enigma that was Thomas William Cowan. (Northern Bee Books, 2011).

Website - 'Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680)' [14 January 2022].

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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