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Ask An Entomologist @BugQuestions
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Although we disagree with this gives us an opportunity to explore a really interesting topic.

What we now call 'queen' bees-the main female reproductive honeybees-were erroneously called 'kings' for nearly 2,000 years.


Let's explore the history of bees!
We've been keeping bees for 5,000 years+ and what we called the various classes of bees was closely tied to the societies naming those classes.

For instance, in a lot of societies it was very common to call the 'workers' slaves because slavery was common at the time.
For awhile, this was the big head-honcho in the biological sciences. This is Aristotle, whose book The History of Animals was the accepted word on animal biology in Europe until roughly the 1600s.
This book was published in 350, and discussed honeybees in quite some detail...and is a good reflection on what was known at the time.

You can read it here:…
The section on honeybees can be found here:…

I'd recommend reading the whole's really interesting for a number of reasons.
...but in particular, let's look at how Aristotle described the swarming process.

Bees reproduce by swarming: They make new queens, who leave to set up a new hive. The queens take a big chunk of the colony's workers with them.
Aristotle didn't know what we know about bees now...but it was widely accepted that the biggest bees in the colony lead the hive somehow and were essential for reproduction and swarming.

...but we now know the queens are female.

Why didn't Aristotle?
Well it turns out that Aristotle, frankly, had some *opinions* about women.

He was...uh, a little sexist.

Which was, like, common at the time.…
Without going into all of his views on the topic, it's apparent his views on women pretty heavily influenced what he saw was going on in the beehive.

He thought of reproduction as a masculine activity, and thought of women as property.

He...just wasn't very objective about this
So, when he saw a society led almost entirely of actually makes a lot of sense as to why he saw the 'queen' bees as male and called them kings.

These ideas of women in his circle were so ingrained that a female ruler literally wouldn't compute.
Moving on through the middle ages, the name 'king' kind of stuck because biological sciences were stuck on Aristotle's ideas for a very long time.

Beekeepers *knew* the queens were female; they were observed laying eggs...but their exact role was controversial outside of them.
In fact, in most circles, it was commonly accepted that the workers gathered the larvae which grew on plants.

Again, this is from Aristotle's work. it's completely and 100% accepted that queen bees are, in fact, female...and that the honeybee society is led by women.

What changed in Western Society to get this idea accepted?
The exact work which popularized the (scientifically accurate) idea of the honeybee as a female-led society was The Feminine Monarchy, by Charles Butler.

However, I'd argue this lady also played a role:
The woman in the picture above is Queen Elizabeth, who ruled England from 1558 until her death in 1603.

Charles Butler (1560-1647) published The Feminine Monarchy in 1609, and had lived under Queen Elizabeth's reign for most of his life.
This is largely a 'right place, right time' situation. At this point, there was a lot of science that was just up and starting.

There had been female rulers before, but not at the exact point where people were rethinking their assumptions.
The fact that Charles Butler was interested in bees, *and* lived under a female monarch for most of his life, I think played a major role in his decision to substitute one simple word in his book.

That substitution? He called 'king bees' 'queen bees'...and it stuck.
At this point in Europe's history, there had been several female monarchs so the idea of a female leader didn't seem so odd.

Society was simply primed to accept the idea of a female ruler.
...but this thread isn't just about words, it's also about *sex*.

So...the term 'queen' actually had to be popularized, but we also had to *prove* that queens were female, that drones were males of the same species...and that the two bumped uglies.

How did *that* happen?
Oh! I almost forgot...if you want to read The Feminine Monarchy, it's considered to be a historically important work.

It's been scanned, digitized, and it's online in all of its old-timey glory!…
Butler was not the first to think of the queen as a female. Various cultures before him, even in Europe, had noted this.

The Anglo-Saxons called her 'the bee mother' 500 years prior, and Luis Mendez de Torres pointed this out 20 years before Butler.
However, nobody actually knew how bees reproduced. In fact, Charles Butler reiterated a lot of ideas about honeybee reproduction.

Just a few examples of the misconceptions...
1.) The Anglo-Saxxons thought bees were formed from dead oxen
2.) Aristotle thought that drones were parasitic bees of another species because he never observed them working
3.) Aristotle thought that bees collected their larvae which grew on trees

These ideas were hotly debated
The person who figured all of this out was a dude by the name of Jan Swammerdam, who lived from 1637 to 1680.

Swammerdam is a *huge* name in the history of science. He figured out how muscles work, discovered ovaries...he's just an awesome biologist.
Although he did all of this work shortly before his death, due to legal shenanigans, his work discussing the reproduction of the honeybee wasn't published until 1737.

So from 350 BC to 1737, we had *no idea* how bees actually did the nasty.
The book in which he published this information, Byel derr Nature (The Bible of Nature) isn't online, as far as I know.

If you can find a digitized copy, tag us, and we'll happily retweet/incorporate it here.
Anyways...Swammerdam dissected workers, queens and drones. He found functional ovaries in the queens, and testes in the drones. This proved once and for all that queens were female and drones were male

Despite this important discovery...Swammerdam wasn't convinced bees had sex's this guy studying bee biology, and working out the details of their reproductive organs.

He's not convinced bees have sex.

What the hell, right?

Why does he think that?

Well, again, Queen Elizabeth.
Queen Elizabeth was known as the 'virgin queen', and this idea also influenced Charles Butler...who couldn't reconcile the idea of a queen giving birth with what he observed in a beehive.
Swammerdam wasn't actually influenced by Butler; he never called this bee a 'queen'. Instead, he viewed the hive as a sort of fraternity which was more consistent with his religious beliefs.
So...enter a blind beekeeper named Francois Huber...who was the first to observe bees mating.

Yes. He was blind, and made some incredibly important observations.

...and yes, this is a long thread. Last person, I promise.
Huber wasn't convinced that bees didn't have sex, so he and his assistant sought to watch bees mating.

He kept virgin queens and drones in a container, and his assistant observed them mating but never laying eggs.
It wasn't until Huber and his assistant observed queens on their mating flight that all of this clicked...that bees needed the entire colony to reproduce.

It wasn't until 1806 that we knew, for sure, that honeybees had sex in order to reproduce.
So let's go back to the original tweet from @HankCampbell

A person's social environment changes how they view the world, influences the questions they ask, and how they interpret their observations

The story of how we discovered the honeybee has sex is a very good demonstration
At every step along the way, we can show that the social environment of the observers kept them from seeing things that are obvious to us today.

The social environment of the time kept the society from accepting some rather obvious observations.
...and in science, this is exactly why we need social justice.

We need it so we can change attitudes, and adopt new findings into usable technologies.
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