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  • The Beehive
  • Marion Thain (bio)

The bees are dying, apparently, and no one knows why. Speculation as to the cause of this disaster has preoccupied the media recently: perhaps a mysterious virus, perhaps a fungus, perhaps climate change, perhaps a reaction to pollution. Yet I wonder whether this sad state of affairs isn't more closely connected with another very topical event—the recent economic recession—than we may yet realize. Bees have functioned for so long as an analogy for the state of society, and the economic and political function specifically, that it wouldn't surprise me if reality and metaphor have collided, producing a potent [End Page 23] omen for our "credit-crunched" times. If one traces the use of the beehive as a metaphor for the organizational and productive endeavours of human society, one can certainly see the historical pressure the poor creatures are currently under to live, and die, in parallel with the fortunes of our economic climate.

The ecosystem of the beehive provided Bernard Mandeville, in the early eighteenth century, with an image of a society that is organized and regulated, but ultimately governed by amoral structures—giving rise to the dictum in his work's title that "private vices" could yield "publick benefits" (passim). Marx took up this image of the worker as worker-bee in Capital (originally published in three volumes between 1867 and 1894), but he argues for the dignity and purpose of human labour in opposition to the unreflective work of the bee (198). In line with this tradition of bee imagery as social and political commentary is an image more familiar to most Victorianists: George Cruikshank's microcosm of British society presented in pictorial form within the chambers of a beehive in his 1867 engraving (originally designed in 1840 but altered before later publication). The hive was a useful analogy for those with vested interests in the economic and organizational operations of society because it represented a system in which roles were tightly adhered to and clearly defined, co-operation was non-negotiable, and productive enterprise was focused and efficient. In Cruikshank's vision, it is essential to the structure and functioning of society that everyone know their position, from the ruling elite at the top, making the highest-order decisions as to the future of the society, to the armed forces at the bottom, ensuring basic security and order. Unsurprisingly, scholars have found in the image a conservative upholding of the status quo at a time when the Second Reform Bill prompted vigorous debate about the extension of the franchise (Fowles xv).

Can the brutality and amorality of Mandeville's bee society be wholly absent as a point of reference here? What does it do to our reading of an image that seems, at first sight, such a structured and benign vision of society? Do the hive's latent political significances express fear of a new matriarchy, and a barely suppressed critique of the Queen's order, beneath its apparently benign surface? What of the lazy, well-fed drone bees, who exist only to mate with the queen and then be killed by the workers? Are these present within Cruikshank's social hierarchy? One can hardly dismiss such questions when Charles Dickens's Bleak House (serialized between 1852 and 1853) had so memorably and so recently characterized the ineffectual Mr. Skimpole through his rejection of the worker bee in favour of the indolent drone: "He must say he thought a Drone the embodiment of a pleasanter and wiser idea. The drone said unaffectedly, '[. . .] I find myself in a world in which there is so much to see and so short a time to see it in that I must take the liberty of looking about me and begging to be provided for by somebody who doesn't want to look about him'" (140). Yet, in the beehive, the drones are killed by the worker bees that originally supported them. Perhaps Cruikshank's "British Bee Hive" contains revolutionary anxiety about the possibility of an uprising of the workers even as it seems to uphold [End Page 24] the "naturalness" of a division of class and labour. We should not forget...


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