For most of our history we have lived under an omnipresent consciousness of our mortality. Pandemics were only one cause of early deaths that haunted day-to-day life. Only in the nineteenth century, with improvements in sanitation
in particular (at least for the more affluent, who could afford the flushing toilet with a ballcock invented by Thomas Crapper,) did mortal insecurity wane, barring such episodic ravages as tuberculosis and syphilis in the C19th, the Spanish Flu and
AIDs in the C20th and ebola and corvid-19 in this one. To the mass deaths caused by these diseases we can add war, genocide, terrorism, opiates and guns.
But let’s go back 364 years. In 1656 the Spanish painter,
Diego Velázquez, was commissioned by the Habsburg King, Phliip IV, to paint Las Meninas (‘The Ladies-in-Waiting’) possibly the most closely analyzed painting of all time. On the surface it is an apotheosis of happiness and
confidence; with the benefit of hindsight it captures the tragedy of the age. Its complex and enigmatic composition raises questions about reality and illusion and creates an uncertain relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted.
The center of the picture is the five-year-old, self-possessed Infanta, Margarita Teresa, attended by two maids, in whom rested the dynastic hopes of the Hapsburg dynasty - three of her siblings did not survive childhood and the only brother who did
(the later Emperor Charles II) displayed the ruinous disabilities that resulted from the family’s inbreeding - Margarita’s father had married his niece, for example.
Meanwhile, the court of the Holy Roman Empire in Vienna
wanted a dynastic marriage to strengthen the Spanish and Austrian branches of the House of Habsburg in the face of the rising French kingdom under the Bourbon King, Louis XIV (who was married to Margarita Teresa’s half-sister.)
at the age of 15, for diplomatic reasons, Margarita Teresa was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, who was 30 years her senior, her maternal uncle and her paternal cousin. The Viennese celebrations of the imperial marriage were among the most
splendid of the Baroque era and lasted almost two years.
Thus was combined two of the most influential families in Europe and it should have been a fairy tale existence. But, despite having access to the best that medicine could offer,
only one of Margarita’s four children survived infancy. The Empress believed that Jews were to blame for her children's deaths and she persuaded her husband to expel them from Vienna and destroy their synagogue, replacing it with a cathedral.
In 1672, in a weakened state, she died from complications of bronchitis. She was 21 years old.
Ninety years earlier, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Massacre of the Innocents, in which soldiers
maraud through a village kicking in doors and raiding houses in search of, it would appear, animals and fowl that are being butchered. But x-ray photography has revealed that someone later sanitized the painting. A package on the lap of a woman was originally
a dead baby; a goose dangled by the neck about to be stabbed was once a baby dangled by the arm; a flock of birds being butchered was once swaddled infants. And so it goes.
Bruegel’s world was one in which children
died (60 per cent never reached the age of 16,) soldiers pillaged, sacked, burned and slaughtered, and beggars were leprous and deformed. Yet whoever redacted the painting wanted to show an artist and society of great sensibility who placed small people
At one level these masterpieces are a poignant reminder of how well we have it compared to our predecessors, which is not a bad prompt in these dreary days of the pandemic.
On August 6th,
in the series To the Best of Our Knowledge on NPR, the author Heather Swan described honey bees as ‘a utopian society.’ A number of books present honey bees as ‘cute, anthropomorphic icons of busy self-sacrificing
individuals,’ as Jurgen Tautz writes in the preface to the English edition of The Buzz About Bees. By contrast, David Papke loaned me his copy of The Dark Side of the Hive : The Evolution of the Imperfect Honey Bee, published two years
ago by two respected researchers, Robin Moritz in Germany and Robin Crewe in South Africa. They acknowledge that while the colony is indeed a marvel of harmonious, efficient organization, it also involves conflict and failure. Like any complex
social system, honey bees are prone to error, robbery, cheating and social parasitism, especially at the individual level, even as the colony gets by remarkably well as a social organism.
The complex and enigmatic composition of
a colony of honey bees raises questions about reality and illusion, and creates an uncertain relationship between the informed beekeeper and the bees. As with Velázquez’s portrayal of the Infanta, one can see a sublime superorganism or
a prosaic society adapting to every day pressures. . One can admire the sanitized idyll of a small village or, as Tom Seeley does so well, one can strip off the paint and get back to the original, back to basics with all of its imperfections,
back to what works for the bees rather than for the beekeeper.
The Dark Side of the Hive is inspirational reading; for me it stands in the company of Taut’s The Buzz of the Bees or Tom Seeley’s Honey
Bee Democracy. I do wish it were not quite so expensive! It needs to be read slowly, reflected upon frequently, and perhaps shared with a group of like-minded people as it explores the individual mistakes, maladaptations and evolutionary dead-ends
of workers, drones and queens.
The book might have shattered my illusions of a colonial paradise but it significantly deepened both my understanding of and appreciation for these amazing creatures. I have to say that, for
me, it serves the same purpose as the pandemic which has shattered many of the illusions of an omnipotent United States to reveal the shortcomings of a society in denial - the underfunding of public health, an inefficient health care system, policies
that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery, leaving minorities vulnerable, the decades-long shredding of our social safety net, forcing essential workers to risk their health for livelihood, and social media platforms that sow partisanship,
misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Finally, The Dark Side of the Hive caused me to reflect only own reading history. When asked to recommend a book to a new beekeeper, I tend towards one that succinctly and coherently
outlines the basics. This work by Moritz and Crewe is not one I would recommend to a beginner. Yet, knowing no better, one of the first bee books I read was The Buzz About Bees, which I would never recommend to a nubee today. Yet it didn’t
put me off. I know now that despite how little of it I understood, there was an instinctive realization that it was important. The intricacy of honey bee society was compelling rather than foreboding, and The Buzz went on my list
of books to come back to, something I am in the middle of doing right now. As Richard Taylor writes in his remarkable The Joys of Beekeeping, “Many are called but few are chosen.” Perhaps ‘being chosen’ involves
one’s acceptance of imperfection and mystery, of fallibility and deficiency, as well as of idyllic bliss.