Original Collection: Melissologia, Or the Female Monarchy

Fri, 07/21/2017 - 2:41pm -- mfarias

Establishing a new library has always required an understanding of the needs of the community it will serve. In 1747, when Abraham Redwood gave the funds for the Original Collection of the Redwood Library, many of the volumes that were purchased were incredibly practical. They dealt with subjects like medicine, farming, and, perhaps most interestingly, beekeeping. As has been the subject of much discussion in recent years, bees play an important role in nature and this was appreciated by men like John Thorley (1671-1759) even in the 18th century. His treatise on bees makes a case for their importance, good nature, and he even presents them as a model to be followed in his readers’ relations with their King.



The complete title for his work on bees is a mouthful that reads: Melissologia. : Or, the female monarchy. Being an enquiry into the nature, order, and government of bees, those admirable, instructive, and useful insects. With a new, easy, and effectual method to preserve them, not only in colonies, but common hives, from that cruel death, to which their ignorant, injurious, and most ingrateful owners so commonly condemn them. A secret unknown to pass ages, and now published for the benefit of mankind (1744). His goal in this work is not just to instruct his readers on how to preserve bees, but also to educate them on their very nature so that they can learn from them.


The Frontispiece of the work showing three detailed bees.

To Thorley, bees are an ideal model for human behavior, specifically for subjects. The first section of chapter one is titled “Of Their Loyalty” and is a lengthy ode to the loyalty bees display towards their Queen. He begins, “Their great Affection, Love and Loyalty to their lawful Sovereign (being all under the Government of one Monarch) are perfectly surprising and astonishing; without Precedent or Parallel, all Royal Orders and Commands are most readily and fully executed…” (7). Their fondness for their Queen and eagerness to obey her orders is equally matched in their devastation when she is lost to them. This is a lesson he believes many humans would do well to learn. Towards the end of this chapter, he turns his attention to addressing them directly: “Come here, oh! All you Christians, and in this Mirrour behold your Duty to your common Lord and alone Sovereign. Hence learn to love, honour, and serve Him; to hate and oppose all that opposes his Kingdom and Interest…” (11). Yet encouraging loyalty to God is not his only moral imperative. He continues, “Come likewise, Oh! All ye Britons and Hibernians, and learn your Duty to your only rightful and lawful Sovereign King George; under whose mild and most equitable Government you enjoy so many great and distinguishing Privileges. Honour your King, and cheerfully pay him Submission, Love and Tribute…” (11). At the time when this work was published and subsequently purchased, the American Revolution was still several decades away, and the people in the American colonies were still expected to pledge their loyalty to their King.



After Thorley speaks at length on the nature of bees, and what we can learn from them, his chapters move on to discuss their “Polity, or Form of Government,” anatomy, “Sorts, Sex, and Manner of Breeding,” architecture, swarming and hiving, “Wars and Robberies,” enemies, “ordering and improving them in Colonies,” and how to preserve them in hives. These last few are the most practical, aided by plates that demonstrate what he is describing. In the first (pictured above), the front view of the colony is shown. Each of the lettered sections is a separate colony, “each to be painted of different Colours.” Where the letter “N” is marked on each colony is the door or entrance along the ledge where the bees alight “when they return from the Field, and when they come out to view the Weather.” The next plate is an inside view of the same colony (pictured below). The letters “D” mark the doors that cover the glass windows, “S” are the “sliders,” “I” marks the square holes for communication, “N” are the handles to lift off the boxes, and finally “H” are for the hinges to the doors to the whole colony. His designs are detailed and he considers not only how to construct them, but also how to populate them with bees and make sure the bees thrive once housed there.



Thorley’s work is a practical book with a distinct moral goal; while he endeavors to teach others how to construct and preserve bee colonies, he never wavers from his belief that bees provide an ideal behavioral model. In his final chapter, he says:

"Since infinite Wisdom sent us to Ants and Bees for Instruction, let us not disdain nor refuse to learn from these Insects as follows...Love, with Loyalty and Submission to our only rightful Sovereign King George, and all lawful Power...Courage and Resolution in Defence of our civil Liberties and reformed Religion...Also Diligence and Prudence...Purity...Unity likewise, with Love and Peace. No Divisions, Contentions, or Wars among themselves...Temperance and Sobriety in the Enjoyment and Use of our outward Comforts...Patience and Innocence...Sympathy and mutual Assistance...Finally, Constant Watchfulness. These Insects have many Enemies; for which Reason they never give themselves up to Security, but have their Guards to watch the City and prevent a Surprise." (204-206)

He is able to find a lot of meaning in the behavior of these insects, which is an interesting, if also less practical aspect of the book. Unless, of course, someone out there was looking for moral guidance and was able to see what he saw in the bees. 


In this final plate, a swarm of bees surrounds the hive outside
while a pile of bees lies sleeping on the desk, awaiting their Queen.