Learn about the lives of bees through rare books in the Special Collections of the Library of Virginia

"Meli-" means honey or honey bee in Greek, and melisselogia is the knowledge thereof. Ancient civilizations in Europe, including Greece and Spain, studied bees and collected honey. Honey bees became ingrained in Ancient Greek and Roman mythology as nymphs and messengers, as well as becoming central to agriculture and foodways. From its Greek root, Melittology is the modern study of honey bees.

The Anatomy of Bees
Bees have existed and have contributed to human development since BCE. Cave paintings have been found depicting humans collecting honey from hives, indicating a long standing relationship between humans and honey bees. To understand more about these small and mighty insects, let's learn more about their anatomies and reproductive systems.

Fig 1: the male drone bee, whose job it is to mate with the Queen Bee

Fig 2, 4, 6: the worker honey bee

Fig 7, 8: pollen and nectar collect in pouches on the legs of bees

Fig 1: a flower from which honey bees collect pollen; "A" are the stamina, and "B" are the pistile, parts of the flower which create pollen

Fig 3: a worker honey bee with legs full of pollen

Fig 4: the head of a worker bee

Queen Bees are the only ones who lay eggs and mate with male drone bees. The other female worker bees collect all the pollen, and are unable to reproduce.

Fig 2: The Queen Bee, surrounded by her male drones, who take care of her in the aftermath of her laying eggs.

"Observe, Eugenio, how all these bees place themselves in a circle around their queen... that they present to her their homage and respect." (Auguste, The Natural History of Bees, 116)

Fig 8:

"B" and "O" combs are empty

"C" and "P" combs are full of honey and royal jelly, and currently have bees inside them

"M" combs have hatched bees, ready to serve the hive and Queen

This video shows the development of honey bee larvae.

Male drones take approximately 21 days to hatch, while female workers take approximately 24 days to hatch.

Types of Bees
Queens, drones, and workers, oh my! Bees come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The work of some bees is to collect and create honey, while others exist solely for mating or pollination of flowers and other plants. Many of the following images are taken from the illustration plates in The Naturalists Library, a rare melittological book concerning the classification and care of bees.

A is "The Drone or Male Bee"

B is "The Female or Queen Bee"

C is "The Worker Bee of no Sex"

(White, Collateral Bee Boxes)

From The Naturalists Library, these illustrations depict various breeds of bees. Despite being written and illustrated in 1852, many of these bees still exist today.

B. Terrestris, or Common Humble-bee

1: B. Donovanellus, or Donovans Humble-bee
2: B. grandis, or Great Humble-bee of Valparaiso

1: Centris nobilis, a species of Apidae bee
2: Centris grossa, a species of Apidae bee
3: Xylocopa violacea, or violet carpenter bee

1: Euglossa Surinamensis, or orchid bees
2: Euglossa Analis
3: Aglae Caerulea, or neotropics orchid bees

What do these orchid bees look like in real life? Are they as vibrant as this illustrator made them seem?

Euglossa Surinamensis, or orchid bees, via The Royal Ontario Museum.

The 1852 illustrator captured these small bugs very accurately!

This video from Nat Geo gives further information about Orchid Bees.

1: Bombus Harrisellus, or the Harris Humble-Bee
2: Apathus vestalis
3: Apathus rupestris

1 & 2: B. Lapidarius, or Orange-tailed bee
3: B. Muscorium, or Moss / Carder bee

The Hive
Since BCE, humans have had close relationships with honey bees, and have worked to innovate the methods through which they live and create hives. Here is a look into the homes of bees, both natural and man-made.

In nature, bees create their own hives within trees using wax and honey.

"Primitive man learned to get honey by robbing the bees' nests in hollow trees or rock crevices; a painting made in a rock shelter in the mountains of eastern Spain in Mesolithic times, probably about 7000 B.C., survives to show us how this was done (The Hive and the Honey Bee, p. 2)."

This terracotta pot was found in a Athenian cemetery from the Geometric Period of ancient Greece (700 BCE) and may represent a bee hive. Ancient Greeks associated bees and honey with the afterlife through mythology, ritual, and medicine. (British Museum)

The bookplate of this work, "A Further Discovery of Bees", features an early model of the modern man-made bee hive.

This 1759 book on bees and their hives diagrams an early model, the design of which has changed little since.

This video explains how to set up a modern bee hive.

Bees and Society
Humans have long sought to understand society by examining the natural world. Hives have represented various forms of governance, and the social order of bees the aristocracy or monarchs. 

In A Further Discovery of Bees (1679) the descriptions of "King Bees" - modernly known as the Queen Bee - and their "colonies" is akin to patriarchal monarchies of the time period.

"The royal race of King-Bees, being natural Kings... The King Bee commands and orders all, as I shall show, when I come to the Government of Bees." (Rusden, 2 - 4)

The "Government of Bees" and structure of their "colonies" inspired and justified monarchies in the 17th century, as proof that monarchies exist in nature.

The scientific distinction between queen bees, drones, and worker bees may have also been seen as a natural parallel to aristocratic society. The industriousness of the worker bees in service to their queen is often praised.

The disappointment described by this author upon seeing an open hive may be read metaphorically. "Even the queen, when pointed out, is merely a large insect trying desperately to hide itself."

Bees can represent the tension between civilization and freedom to some. Whatever significance humans read into the lives of bees, a symbiotic relationship has developed between bees and bee keepers.

What's the Buzz?
How have bees helped humankind? Are we helping them in return? Why are there so many campaigns claiming to "Save the Bees?" 

Bees and their honey have been used for centuries, and contribute a to our food supply.

People around the world invest in bees. They are both a cultural phenomenon as well as creators of valuable, organic consumer goods.

Dan Snow collects honey (BBC)

Honey is collected from hives both man-made and in nature, and in many places besides the United States.

Why is everyone talking about saving the bees?

This video by Kurzgesagt explains the big threats that are killing off honeybees.

Hint: the most harmful substance is made by humans.

Bees are huge contributors to the global economy. They pollinate many plants, flowers and trees that feed a majority of the world.

Many organizations work to protect bees from all the harmful bugs and pesticides that are threatening their lives. Without bees, the world would never be the same.

The Library of Virginia houses a multitude of works on the study of bees. Their importance to our history and culture is reflected in these rare and beautiful books.

Credits: Story

Research, text and arrangement by University of Richmond student intern, Luriel Balaurea. Mentorship by Audrey McElhinney and Cassandra Farrell of the Manuscripts and Special Collections department. Editing and assistance from Sonya Coleman, Digital Collections Specialist.

Imaging by Mark Fagerburg and Ben Smith Photo & Digital Imaging Services department.

All images from Manuscripts & Special Collections in the Library of Virginia, Royal Ontario Museum, the British Museum, and LIFE Photo Collection.

Credits: All media
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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