Sweetness and Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The title of Hattie Ellis’s delectable treatise on the honeybee, Sweetness and Light, is derived from a quote from Jonathan Swift’s satirical The Battle of the Books (1704): “We have chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light.” Taking readers on a wide-ranging journey through time and around the globe, Ellis examines how people have hunted, robbed, and, finally, tamed bees to obtain the “sweetness and light” they produce. Her engaging discussion of the social history, popular science, ancient myth, and quaint folklore buzzing around this industrious insect provides an close-up look at not only the inner workings of the hive but also the symbiotic relationship humans and bees have shared since the Stone Age. Ellis does a remarkable job of distilling thousands of years of science, history, and anthropology into less than 250 pages, portraying the “common” honeybee as anything but common.

Ellis claims that Apis mellifera is “the most studied creature on the planet next to man”and the most successful of all the subspecies of bee. Centuries of observations by farmers, aristocrats, clergymen, writers, and scientists have contributed to the knowledge of bee biology, lore, and husbandry. Ellis’s fluid prose and playful wit make this sometimes arcane information accessible to the modern reader as she sprinkles her narrative with fascinating and often quirky tidbits about the secret life of bees. For example, when calm, bees hum at the pitch of middle C. They can live in colonies of up to a hundred thousand individuals. Bees cannot see red but can see yellow, green, and blue, colors that are associated with rosemary, thyme, and lavender, which are favorite sources of nectar.

A bee’s sense of smell is tied to its memory. For twelve days after a bee has visited a certain flower, the insect “remembers” the scent and returns repeatedly to the bloom to collect pollen and nectar. A female worker bee processes only one-quarter ounce of honey during her brief, six-week life span. A gallon of honey could provide enough fuel for a bee to fly seven million miles. Employing a complicated dance, a bee can communicate to the rest of its hive the distance, direction, quantity, and quality of sources of nectar. Ellis also notes the odd likelihood that bees may have evolved before flowers. Such a possibility is surprising, considering that the modern honeybee’s survival is intimately intertwined with that of blossoming plants. Each depends on the other for “the twin necessities of existence, of reproduction and food.”

In addition to being the “necessities of existence,” reproduction and food also dictate the social structure of the colony. Taking readers within the walls of the hive, Ellis reveals the remarkably efficient division of labor that is essential to the smooth operation of the community, which consists of a queen, male drones, and thousands of female worker bees. The queen is the center of the life of the hive. After mating with drones in flight, she stores sperm in her body that will last her lifetime. She is the only egg-producing female in the community, laying up to an astonishing two thousand eggs per day.

The drones’ sole purpose is to mate with the queen. Once a drone accomplishes this important mission, he dies. The remaining drones who did not mate with the queen loiter around the hive and are fed and supported by the workers. It may seem that the drones lead a charmed, if idle life. However, just as in human society, there is no such thing as a free lunch within the bee community. When the workers are readying the hive for the winter, they stop feeding the drones and even bar them from entering the nest. The drones die of exposure and starvation. If the queen is the heart of the hive, the workers are its soul and by far the busiest bees in the colony. Not only do they go on wide-ranging reconnaissance flights to locate and bring back nectar, ultimately transforming it into honey, they also clean the cells, feed developing larvae, repair the nest, pack the cells with pollen, keep the hive at a consistent temperature by flapping their wings, and patrol the entrance to the hive.

Understanding the social structure of the hive has no doubt aided humans in domesticating bees over the centuries, but why were people attracted to the insects in the first place? Ellis speculates that early humans associated sweetness with good nutrition and quick energy, advantages that served...

(The entire section is 1868 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 12 (February 15, 2005): 1044.

Forbes 175, no. 5 (March 14, 2005): 117-119.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 24 (December 15, 2004): 1179.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 3 (January 17, 2005): 44.