Study Guide

Sweetness and Light

by Hattie Ellis

Sweetness and Light Essay - Critical Essays

Sweetness and Light

Hattie Ellis portrays the “common” honeybee as anything but common in her entertaining treatise Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee. Embarking on a wide-ranging journey through time and around the globe, she traces the social history, popular science, ancient myth, and quaint folklore buzzing around this mysterious insect who, she claims, is “the most studied creature on the planet after man.”

Ellis begins with a visit to a modern-day honey farm located on the wild moors of northern England, noting that the working relationship humans and bees share is rooted in a symbiosis that has developed over thousands of years. An innate love of sweetness prompted our honey-hunting Stone Age ancestors to rob the hives of wild bees. The ancient Egyptians, the earliest known apiarists, used honey in medicine and magic. The Greeks and Romans were the first to record bee behavior, and in Medieval Europe, beeswax became the preferred material out of which candles were made because it produced clean, “unsmoky” light. Bees and honey have also provided inspiration for writers, architects, politicians, artists, and philosophers, including Aristotle, William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, Frank Lloyd Wright, W.B. Yeats, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

In addition to her erudite discussion of the impact of apis mellifera on human culture, Ellis reveals many surprising tidbits of information as she looks behind the walls of the hive to detail the inner workings of bee society. For example, she mentions that some bees live in colonies of up to 100,000 insects; a worker bee collects only one-quarter ounce of honey during her brief life span; and bees, using a complicated dance, can communicate to the rest of the hive the distance, direction, quality, and quantity of nectar sources.

Packed with engaging stories, humorous anecdotes, and historical facts, Ellis's well-researched narrative will delight both veteran beekeepers and curious common readers alike.