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Housewives and Old Wives: Sex and Superstition in English Beekeeping

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Bees, Science, and Sex in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature ((PSAAL))

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This chapter analyzes the gendered nature of English beekeeping from the seventeenth century until the early twentieth century with strong emphasis on changes that unfolded during the long nineteenth century. It argues that historians’ interpretations of early modern texts have potentially overemphasized women’s predominance in beekeeping, but there is a strong case for an increased masculinization of beekeeping evidenced in the literature of the long nineteenth century. Evidence from nineteenth-century beekeeping societies confirm that women were a significant, but minority, presence in organizations that promoted scientific and humane beekeeping methods by the late nineteenth century. Cultural contests between superstition and scientific-humane management factored in the increased prominence of rhetoric denouncing rural superstition and the “old wives” that allegedly perpetuated such beliefs and practices. The overall study contributes to a more complete understanding of a form of livestock husbandry that was significant in many English households throughout the period under review.

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  1. 1.

    John Levett, The Ordering of Bees; Or, the True History of Managing Them (London: Printed by Thomas Harper, for John Harison, 1634), preface, n.p.

  2. 2.

    See below for statements along these lines by H. M. Fraser, Frederick Prete, and Nicola Verdon.

  3. 3.

    Mary Mitford, Our Village: Sketches of Rural Character and Scenery (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1854), 54.

  4. 4.

    Levett, The Ordering of Bees, preface, n.p.

  5. 5.

    For a review of sources on women in British and European beekeeping, see Eva Crane, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (New York: Routledge, 1999), 586–590.

  6. 6.

    Authors periodically considered bees as a form of “livestock.” See, for example, John Mills, An Essay on the Management of Bees: Wherein Is Shewn the Method of Rearing Those Useful Insects (London: J. Johnson and B. Davenport, 1766), 69; John Keys, Practical Bee-Master (1780), vi; Alfred Neighbour, The Apiary: or, Bees, Bee-hives, and Bee Culture (London: Neighbour and Sons, 1865), 125.

  7. 7.

    The quotation is from Anon., The farmer’s wife; or complete country housewife (London: Printed for Alex. Hogg, c. 1780), preface, cited in Nicola Verdon, “‘…Subjects Deserving of the Highest Praise’: Farmers’ Wives and the Farm Economy in England, c. 1700–1850”, AgHR 51 (2003): 28.

  8. 8.

    For initial questions on the reliability of viewing women as the primary practitioners of English beekeeping, see Adam Ebert, “Nectar for the Taking: The Popularization of Scientific Bee Culture in England, 1609–1809”, AgHR 85 (2011): 337–338.

  9. 9.

    For a careful discussion on handling “rhetorics and records” where “not many, if any, should be taken at face value,” see Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons: Change, Crime and Control in the Capital City, 1550–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 8–11.

  10. 10.

    Jane Whittle, “Housewives and Servants in Rural England, 1440–1650: Evidence of Women’s Work from Probate Documents,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 15 (2005), 68.

  11. 11.

    Whittle, “Housewives,” 68.

  12. 12.

    William Lawson, The Country House-Wives Garden: Together, with the Husbandry of Bees, Published with Secrets Very Necessary for Every House-wife: As Also Divers New Knots for Gardens (London: Printed by A. Griffin for J. Harrison, 1653), 85.

  13. 13.

    The broad range of hive models, and manners of situating them, is reviewed in Crane, World History of Beekeeping, 238–257 and 313–325.

  14. 14.

    H. M. Fraser, History of Beekeeping in Britain (London: Bee Research Association, 1958), 73. Frederick R. Prete echoed Fraser’s opinion in “Can Females Rule the Hive? The Controversy over Honey Bee Gender Roles in British Beekeeping Texts of the Sixteenth-Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of the History of Biology 24 (1991):129.

  15. 15.

    On ranges of hive weights, see J. H. Payne, The Apiarian’s Guide (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1833), 8; Robert Maxwell. The Practical Bee-Master (Edinburgh: Printed by Robert Drummond, 1747), 17; Robert Huish, Bees: Their Natural History and General Management (London: H.G. Bohn, 1844), 331–332. For an analysis of gender and strength differences in waged labor, see Joyce Burnette, Gender, Work and Wages in Industrial Revolution Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 106–114.

  16. 16.

    Lawson, Country House-wives Garden, 91.

  17. 17.

    Charles Butler, The Feminine Monarchie or the History of Bees (London: John Haviland for Roger Jackson. 1623), C5.

  18. 18.

    Penelope Walker and Eva Crane, “The History of Beekeeping in English Gardens,” Garden History 28 (2000): 247.

  19. 19.

    On recommending a limited number of hives for beekeeping households, see examples in Payne, Apiarian’s Guide, x. For considerations regarding pasturage as a reason to only “keep a few stocks,” see John Keys, The Antient Bee-Mafter’s Farewell (London: Printed for G.G. and J. Robinson, 1796), 144.

  20. 20.

    The longevity of promoting beekeeping for paying rent is evident in the twentieth-century title of Tickner Edwardes, Bees as Rent Payers (Arundel: Mitchell, 1906).

  21. 21.

    Whittle, “Housewives and Servants,” p. 65.

  22. 22.

    Robert Sydserff, Sydserff’s Treatise on Bees (Salisbury: B. C. Collins, 1792), 5.

  23. 23.

    Samuel Bagster, The Management of Bees (London: Bagster and Pickering, 1834), 211.

  24. 24.

    Keys, Practical Bee-Master, 352; William Cotton, My Bee-Book (London: Rivington, 1842), xliv.

  25. 25.

    For general commentary on the concept of bees imparting lessons to their keepers, see Ebert, “Nectar for the Taking”: 325–327.

  26. 26.

    Sandra Sherman, “Printed Communities; Domestic Management Texts in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 3 (2003): 57–59.

  27. 27.

    Butler, Feminine Monarchie, C6.

  28. 28.

    Butler, C1.

  29. 29.

    Joseph Warder, The True Amazons: Or, The Monarchy of Bees (London: Pemberton, 1720), 21. For an earlier remark on bees staying occupied during “unkind weather,” see Butler, Feminine Monarchie, C6.

  30. 30.

    Keys, Practical Bee-Master, 20.

  31. 31.

    Cotton, My Bee-Book, xliv.

  32. 32.

    John Cumming, Bee-Keeping by “The Times” Bee-Master (London: Sampson Low, 1864), 1.

  33. 33.

    Whittle, Housewives and Servants in Rural England, 64. See also Amanda Vickery, “Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History,” in Women’s Work: The English Experience 1650–1914, ed. Pamela Sharpe (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998), 294–298. A response aimed at pinpointing what women actually did, rather than how they were instructed, appears in the methodology of Burnette, Gender, Work and Wages, 3–7, 11–15.

  34. 34.

    Lawson, Country Housewives Garden, 85.

  35. 35.

    The account books of Henry Best called for “a man and two women” to perform harvesttime manipulations. Henry Best, Rural Economy in Yorkshire in 1641 (Durham: The Society, 1857), 65–68. In the nineteenth century, John Lawrence employed “an aged laborer” and his wife to care for his bees and other animals. See John Lawrence, A Practical Treatise on Breeding, Rearing, and Fattening (London: Sherwood, 1816), 57.

  36. 36.

    The evidence suggesting that beekeeping must be considered an activity practiced by both sexes, though perhaps in evolving manners, adds merit to Linda Kerber’s argument related to the danger of holding too closely to notions of “separate spheres” in matters of gender history. See Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” Journal of American History 75 (1988): 38.

  37. 37.

    Walker and Crane, “History of Beekeeping in English Gardens”: 234.

  38. 38.

    The title “bee-master” represented experience and knowledge, but it usually did not indicate a person dependent on bees for their main income. For chronological examples of the language of “bee-master,” see examples: Lawson, Country House-wives Garden, 85; Maxwell, Practical Bee-Master (1747); Samuel Cooke, The compleat bee-master (London: Cooke, c. 1780); Keys, Practical Bee-Master (1780); Sydserff, Sydserff’s Treatise on Bees (1792), 21; Keys, Antient Bee-Mafter’s Farewell (1796); John Lawrence, A Practical Treatise on Breeding, Rearing, and Fattening, 274; John M. Hooker, Guide to Successful Bee-Keeping (Kings Langley: John Huckle, 1888), iii; Tickner Edwardes, The Bee-Master of Warrilow (London: Pall Mall, 1907).

  39. 39.

    The combination of “pleasure and profit” was recurrent in beekeeping literature as well as the popularization of other agricultural pursuits. On changing approaches to thrift and profit, see Andrew McRae, God Speed the Plough: The Representation of Agrarian England, 1500–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 135–168. For examples of beekeeping portrayed as pleasurable and profitable over a broad chronology, see examples: Moses Rusden, A Further Discovery of Bees (London: H. Million, 1679), preface and 68; George Strutt, The Practical Apiarian; or, A Treatise on the Improved Management of Bees (Clare: Shearcroft, 1825), 5, 73; Charles Nettleship White, Pleasurable Bee-Keeping (London: Arnold, 1895), 19.

  40. 40.

    Strutt, Practical Apiarian, 73.

  41. 41.

    Richard Remnant, A Discourse or Historie of Bees (London: Robert Young, 1637), 39.

  42. 42.

    Herbert R. Peel, Who Is a Bona Fide Cottager? (London: Herbert R. Peel, 1883), 15.

  43. 43.

    Cotton, My bee-book, xliv–xlv.

  44. 44.

    McRae, God speed the plough, 3, 18, 60–67.

  45. 45.

    William Cobbett, Cottage Economy (London: John Doyle, 1828), 4.

  46. 46.

    Lawson, Country House-wives Garden, 85.

  47. 47.

    The work of the blind, Swiss naturalist François Huber exerted international influence. Publication of his New Observations on the Natural History of Bees earned greater currency in the British Isles after an English-language edition appeared in 1806 (Edinburgh). The book popularized the findings of previous scientists and his personal observations on bee behavior.

  48. 48.

    A coherent explanation of the emerging movable-frame hive and its “advantages” appears in Neighbour, The Apiary, 36–85.

  49. 49.

    “Apicide” is a synonym for bee murder. The term is based on the scientific name for honeybees, Apis mellifera. For use, see Cotton, My Bee-Book, 81–82. On “bee-murder,” see Rev. George Tooker Hoare, The Village Museum; or, How We Gathered Profit with Pleasure (London: George Routledge, 1858), 39–40.

  50. 50.

    Levett, Ordering of Bees, 41

  51. 51.

    Anon., “Bees and Beekeeping,” London Quarterly Review 26 (1866):133. The importance of humane ethic in advocating for nineteenth-century reform is denied in Gene Kritsky, The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 123.

  52. 52.

    Warder, True Amazons, 5.

  53. 53.

    W. H. Harris, The Honey-Bee: Its Nature, Homes, and Products (London: Religious Tract Society, 1884), 2.

  54. 54.

    Huish, Bees: Their Natural History, 287–288.

  55. 55.

    Huish, 167–168.

  56. 56.

    Huish, 168.

  57. 57.

    Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (London: E. Nutt, 1722), 24–25.

  58. 58.

    Edward Scudamore, Artificial Swarms: A Treatise on the Production of Early Swarms of Bees by Artificial Means (London: Longman, 1848), iv. On the need for gold payment, see also Keys, Practical Bee-Mafter, 90–91. Moses Rusden voiced his opposition to this superstition and others in the seventeenth century: Rusden, A Further Discovery of Bees, preface.

  59. 59.

    Huish, Bees: Their Natural History, 160.

  60. 60.

    Remnant. A Discourse or Historie of Bees, 13.

  61. 61.

    F. G. Jenyns, A Book About Bees (London: Gardner, 1886), 191–195. These pages recount additional superstitions.

  62. 62.

    Henry Taylor, The Bee-Keeper’s Manual (London: Groombridge, 1839), 111; Payne, Apiarian’s Guide, 51; British Bee Journal (BBJ) 1 (1873): 27; BBJ 4 (1876): 67; Robert Huish, The Cottager’s Manual for the Management of his Bees (London: Wetton and Jarvis, 1820), 41–42; Harris, The Honey-Bee, 259–267.

  63. 63.

    John Worlidge, A Discourse of the Government and Ordering of Bees (London: Thos, 1678), 3–4. Worlidge believed that bees’ “Prescience is most observable.”

  64. 64.

    Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey-Bee (Northampton: Hopkins, Bridgman & Co, 1853), 303.

  65. 65.

    Harris, The Honey-Bee, 263.

  66. 66.

    A Berkshire case study on the slow transition toward movable-frame technology appears in Adam Ebert, “Hive Society: the popularization of science and beekeeping in the British Isles, 1609–1913” (Unpublished PhD thesis, Iowa State University, 2009), chapter 5, especially 168–169.

  67. 67.

    Harris explained the persistence of these superstitions by linking the beekeepers to “the more ignorant classes, among whom wonderful stories easily arise, are rapidly propagated, and tenaciously believed.” Harris, The Honey-Bee, 266.

  68. 68.

    Harris, The Honey-Bee, 2. Edwardes also respected female dexterity as an asset. Edwardes, Bee-Master of Warrilow, 225–229.

  69. 69.

    Bagster, Management of Bees, 9.

  70. 70.

    Bagster, 222.

  71. 71.

    Rules of the Western Apiarian Society Instituted for Promoting the Knowledge of the Best Method of Managing Bees (Exeter: Trewman, 1800), 16–18.

  72. 72.

    John W. Whiston, History of the Staffordshire Beekeepers’ Associations 1876–1976 (Walsall: South Staffordshire & District Beekeepers Association, 1976), 11.

  73. 73.

    Museum of English Rural Life, Flood Collection. D88/1/2/10. Berkshire Bee Van Notebook (July 19, 1894).

  74. 74.

    Gloucestershire Bee-Keepers Association. Annual Report 1886 (Gloucester: Gloucestershire Bee-Keepers Association, 1887), 10–14.

  75. 75.

    Somerset Bee-Keepers’ Association, Annual Report 1910 (Bristol: Somerset Bee-Keepers’ Association, 1911), 11–20.

  76. 76.

    Philanthropist Burdett-Coutts offered some of her reasons for supporting beekeeping in an introduction to F. G. Jenyns’ 1886 manual. She considered beekeeping a means to elevate the piety and productivity of the population. See Jenyns, A Book About Bees, pp. ix–xi.

  77. 77.

    Hoare, Village Museum, 39–40.

  78. 78.

    The secretary of England’s Royal Agricultural Society named beekeeping in a Dublin speech on “Some of the duties of the farmer’s wife”. See White, Pleasurable Bee-Keeping, 17. The speech was delivered at the dairy show of the Royal Dublin Society in October 1883.

  79. 79.

    For examples of gender-neutral critique of cottage beekeepers, see: Thomas Nutt, Humanity to Honey Bees (Wisbech: Cambs, 1835), 190–191; Alfred Rusbridge, Bee-Keeping Plain and Practical; And How to Make It Pay (London: Allen, 1883), 126–136; White, Pleasurable Bee-Keeping, 51; S. L. Bensusan, The Children’s Story of the Bee (London: Mills and Boon, 1909), 243.

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Ebert, A. (2024). Housewives and Old Wives: Sex and Superstition in English Beekeeping. In: Harley, A., Harrington, C. (eds) Bees, Science, and Sex in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century. Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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