SEPTEMBER
2000

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

9-14-00

Honey Bees According to Aristotle

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, seems to have known something about everything. In his writings, he touched on all kinds of topics, even insects. In fact, his writings include a detailed description of honey bees.

Some authorities suggest that the honey bee information attributed to Aristotle was written by someone else. This person has become known as the “Aristotelian Bee-Master.” Regardless of the actual authorship, the information included is remarkably accurate. Especially considering that it was compiled some 350 years B.C.

In Aristotle's works, the honey bees are lumped together with other insects that build a honey comb. This group is further divided into gregarious and solitary forms. Amongst the gregarious types are the bee, the king-bee, the drone-bee, the annual wasp, the hornet and the ground wasp.

The bee, the king-bee and the drone-bee are what we know today as the three castes of the honey bee. The bee is what we call the worker today. The king-bee is in actuality the queen. This misunderstanding of the sex of the ruler of the colony is the biggest mistake included in the writings about the honey bee.

It is interesting to note that reproduction of the honey bee was poorly understood in Aristotle's days. His writings on the history of animals included some hypotheses. First, there was the belief that bees do not give birth to young but fetch their young from flowers.

Even the type of flower was in question. Some thought the olive, others the reed or the callyntrum. Some people apparently believed that the drones came from the flowers, but the working bees were engendered by the rulers of the hive.

In reference to the rulers, Aristotle wrote that “they are called by some the ‘mothers' from an idea that they bear or generate the bees.” As proof of this theory, it was pointed out that the brood of drones appears even when there is no ruler bee in the hive. This is an accurate observation. As we know today, unfertilized female workers can lay eggs in the absence of a queen, but the eggs develop into drones.

As for the development of the bees in the immature stages, Aristotle was right on! He stated that the ordinary bee is generated in the cells of the comb. The ruler-bees, on the other hand, come from larger cells suspended on the bottom of the comb. 

It is further stated that the young larvae are fed in the cells where they reside. When completely fed, the cell is stoppered up with wax, which the new bee must chew through when it emerges.

Aristotle knew that bees obtained material from flowers. But just what was in question. He stated that the honeycomb is made from flowers. The materials for the wax comes from the gum of trees. It was suggested that honey actually is deposited from the atmosphere. As proof of this, Aristotle offered two facts. Occasionally, bees fill the combs with honey in a day or two. Also, in the fall, flowers are found but very little honey is produced; therefore, it couldn't be coming from flowers since they are abundant. Today, we know that fall flowers are good producers of nectar and, as a result, bees do not produce much honey from them!

What people of Aristotle's time did know is that the bee carried material around on its legs and vomited the honey into the cell in the comb. Yes, even in Aristotle's day, the young boys at the dinner table could gross out their mothers by demanding some “bee vomit” to spread over their breakfast toast!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox