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Early beekeepers assumed that queen bees were male, and called them kings, until it was discovered that the “king” was the one laying all the eggs.

Below is an excerpt from: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ENTOMOLOGY“ by John L. Capinera 

“It was not until 1609 that Charles Butler (an English beekeeper) in his famous book titled ‘The Feminine Monarchie,’ challenged the idea of king bees. Thereafter, in 1670, a Dutch scientist (Jan Swammerdam) proved this hypothesis through dissection, accompanied by his full anatomical drawings of queen, drone and worker…

The year 1609 A.D. (i.e., the date of publication of ‘The Feminine Monarchie’) is considered by some to mark the beginning of our knowledge about the sexuality of the ruler of the hive (the Queen). However, the first person to understand the sex of the queen probably was Luis Mendez de Torres in Spain who published a book in 1586 titled ‘Tractado breve de la cultivation y cur de las colmenas.’ In this book, he stated clearly that the leader bee in the hive laid the eggs, from which all workers, drones and future queens developed.

http://www.theoria.ca/theoria/files/Rusden-FullDiscoveryOfBees1685-2.jpg

In addition to de Torres, the knowledge of several Persian scientists about the queen bee may be traced back to a much earlier period. Ikhawan-ul-Safa (or The Brethren of Purity), who flourished in A.D. 950-1000 at Basra, composed a series of tracts in Arabic language known as the ‘Epistles of the Brethren of Purity,’ (also reported as ‘Epistles of the Brethren of Sincerity’) in the latter half of the tenth century (A.D. 950-1000). The authors of these series were six encyclopaedists, with at least three of them from Persia. Among their work, the ‘Dispute Between Man and the Animals’ is of zoological interest.

The following citation from their work refers to the sexuality of the ruler of the hive:

‘There, the king of the hasharat [insects], Ja’ sub [i.e., the bee queen], rules over the wasps, the flies, the bugs, the mosquitoes, the dung beetles, the spanish flies, the butterflies and moths and over the locusts, i.e., over all small animals which fly by wings, have no feathers, no bones, no soft hair and no fur.’ 

The above statement, which uses the Arabic word of Ja’sub [the bee queen], clearly refers to the sexuality of the hive ruler. It is also the first attempt to define an insect.

After about three centuries, al-Qazwini (the author of ‘Aja ib al-Makhluqat,’ composed in A.D. 1263) clearly speaks of the role of the king of honey bees (the queen) in the production of a new king. Despite the report, the sexuality of the queen as well as the definition of the insect were overlooked by other scholars for a long time.

While the sexuality of the ‘King’ remained unnamed until publication of ‘The Feminine Monarchie’ by Charles Butler in 1609 A.D. (or the publication of the book of Luis Mendex de Torres in 1586 A.D.), the definition of the insect was ignored until the seventeenth century. Although the word ‘King’ used in the former sentences may indicate the ignorance of al-Qazwini about the sexuality of the ‘Queen,’ the second phrase (i.e., “since it is the king who produces again a new king”), leaves no doubt on the awareness of this author about the sex of the ‘Queen.’”

Chelsea McFarland

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