Summary and Info
"Bee" isn't really a book about the biology of bees or history of beekeeping, although a few chapters on this have been included. Rather, it's a book about the bee as a cultural or political symbol. The author is a lecturer in English literature. Indeed, the biology sections of the book contain sloppy mistakes. For instance, Preston doesn't understand the exact taxonomical relationship between ants, wasps and bees. She also constantly refers to the Western honeybee as the only honey-making bee, yet mentions other honey-making bees as well, sometimes on the same page!
But then, the book is really about humans...
Preston points out that the honeybee has traditionally been a positive symbol in Western culture. The bee was considered chaste, virginal, hard-working and co-operative. Christians connected it to the virgin birth of Christ or the perpetual virginity of Mary (for a long time, people had no idea how bees reproduce). The bee supposedly left the Garden of Eden already before the fall of man, and was therefore a perfect divine creation. During the 16th and 17th centuries, many royalists claimed that the hive was controlled by a king bee. Supporters of a constitutional monarchy claimed that the worker-bees could overthrow a bad king bee. And a admirer of Elizabeth I pointed out (correctly) that the "king" bee was really a queen bee! Still others saw the beehive as a republic.
Preston has detected a change of attitude towards the honeybee as a cultural symbol during the French revolution. Both the revolutionaries and Napoleon used the bee or the beehive as emblems. Because of this, the bee got a negative reputation in Britain. Suddenly, bees were seen less as the epitome of order and more as a dangerous swarm bent on destruction. The hostility to the bee was continued by the Romantics, who saw it as a metaphor for depersonalized industrial society. Likewise with Fritz Lang, whose famous movie "Metropolis" depicts enslaved workers as being similar to bees.
But the worst bee-scare came in the United States after World War II, perhaps due to the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War. The collectivism of the hive resembled that of Communism. Preston also mentions a few horror movies where the evil takes the form of women who turn out to be "queen bees". Strangely, Preston never reflects on whether these films could be anti-feminist. Of course, when the Africanized killer bee "invaded" the United States from Mexico, the movie industry had a field day. Many horror movies about killer bees use these insects as an obviously racist metaphor for Blacks, Mexicans or aliens in general. One particularly bad movie depicts the killer bees as eco-terrorists, and this even before eco-terrorism became an issue!
However, Preston also points out that the European honeybee was still seen as a positive cultural symbol in many contexts. In the United States, bees are still used as role models for children: "Be a Do-Bee, Don't Be a Don't-Bee". Indeed, it's difficult to believe that the negative attitude towards the European honeybee was ever the dominant trend. It's hardly a co-incidence that the negative views of the Cold War era were later projected onto the more aggressive and invasive killer bees!
Some new development not mentioned by the author are the varroa mite and CCD. My guess is that bees will eventually become symbols of human civilization itself. The next horror movie will feature gigantic mites...or terrorists inducing mass starvation through CCD. The honeybees (and ecologists) will be the good guys. Boring, right?
As already pointed out, "Bee" isn't really about bees. It's a book about the human hive. It's not a scholarly study, but rather a compilation of facts about bees as metaphor. Some chapters could need better editing. Frankly, you probably should approach this book with a grain of salt. I mean, a book that mentions both Virgil, Edmund Burke and "Candyman"? Still, if you have a beekeeper or Do-Bee in the family, it could perhaps work as a lighter birthday gift.
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