Peevish bees

By John Jackson (died 1831), after Sir Joshua Reynolds (died 1792) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By John Jackson (died 1831), after Sir Joshua Reynolds (died 1792) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Hunter, known for his surgery and his legacy in the form of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, also conducted other botanical and natural history experiments as recorded within his letters and published articles. Notable examples which were conducted in his garden at Earl’s Court, and include an attempt to culture pearls in the garden pond and research on bees. His observations on bees perhaps best demonstrate his close observation of the natural world within his domestic space – it can be argued that this skill is what set him apart from other surgeons of the time.

In order to conduct research into bees he had glass hives constructed to his own specification so that they had, ‘different panes of glass, each pane opening with hinges so that if I saw anything going on that I wished to examine more minutely or immediately, I opened the pane at this part and executed what I wished, as much as was in my power’. He recorded his observations as follows: ‘when I saw some operations going on the dates or periods of which I wished to ascertain, such as the time of laying eggs, of hatching, &c. I made a little dot with white paint opposite to the cell where the egg was laid and put down the date.’ These specially constructed hives were placed within the conservatory adjoining the house at Earl’s Court which would have enabled him to conduct his detailed observational work over a period of time. Hunter’s paper on bees was the last work he contributed to Philosophical Transactions in 1792.

His close observational work is clearly demonstrated by his detailed attention to the sound produced by bees:

Bees may be said to have a voice…. But they produce a noise independent of their wings; for if a bee is smeared all over with honey, so as to make the wings stick together it will be found to make a noise, which is shrill and peevish. To ascertain this further, I held a bee by the legs, with a pair of pincers; and observed it then made the peevish noise, although the wings were perfectly still: I then cut the wings off, and found it made the same noise. I examined it in water, but it then did not produce the noise, till it was very much teased and then it made the same kind of noise; and I could observe the water, or rather the surface of contact of the water with the air at the mouth of an air-hole at the root of the wing vibrating…. I have observed that they, or some of them, make a noise the evenings before they swarm, which is a kind of ring, or sound of a small trumpet: by comparing it with the notes of the piano forte, it seemed to be the same with the lower A of the treble.

This interest in bees can perhaps be related to his agricultural interest in animals, compost, silkworms and trees – they were all important in relation to the economic value of an estate. It also suggests that the domestic garden could also function as an active scientific space.




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