I kicked around a number of titles for this one: The Persistence of Bias, Science is Social, Beeing Blind. It’s amazing just how many themes can be packed into a Twitter thread.
Hank Campbell: Resist the call to make science about social justice. Astronomers should not be enthusiastic when told that their cosmic observations are inevitably a reflex of the power of the socially privileged.
Ask An Entomologist: Although we disagree with this tweet…it gives us an opportunity to explore a really interesting topic. What we now call ‘queen’ bees-the main female reproductive honeybees-were erroneously called ‘kings’ for nearly 2,000 years. Why? Let’s explore the history of bees!
We’ve been keeping bees for 5,000 years+ and what we called the various classes of bees was closely tied to the societies naming those classes. For instance, in a lot of societies it was very common to call the ‘workers’ slaves because slavery was common at the time. For awhile, this was the big head-honcho in the biological sciences. This is Aristotle, whose book The History of Animals was the accepted word on animal biology in Europe until roughly the 1600s. This book was published in 350, and discussed honeybees in quite some detail …and is a good reflection on what was known at the time. […] I’d recommend reading the whole thing…it’s really interesting for a number of reasons.
…but in particular, let’s look at how Aristotle described the swarming process. Bees reproduce by swarming: They make new queens, who leave to set up a new hive. The queens take a big chunk of the colony’s workers with them.
“Of the king bees there are, as has been stated, two kinds. In every hive there are more kings than one; and a hive goes to ruin if there be too few kings, not because of anarchy thereby ensuing, but, as we are told, because these creatures contribute in some way to the generation of the common bees. A hive will go also to ruin if there be too large a number of kings in it; for the members of the hives are thereby subdivided into too many separate factions.”
Aristotle didn’t know what we know about bees now…but it was widely accepted that the biggest bees in the colony lead the hive somehow and were essential for reproduction and swarming. …but we now know the queens are female. Why didn’t Aristotle?
Well it turns out that Aristotle, frankly, had some *opinions* about women. He was…uh, a little sexist. Which was, like, common at the time. Without going into all of his views on the topic, it’s apparent his views on women pretty heavily influenced what he saw was going on in the beehive. He thought of reproduction as a masculine activity, and thought of women as property. He…just wasn’t very objective about this. So, when he saw a society led almost entirely of women…it actually makes a lot of sense as to why he saw the ‘queen’ bees as male and called them kings. These ideas of women in his circle were so ingrained that a female ruler literally wouldn’t compute.
Moving on through the middle ages, the name ‘king’ kind of stuck because biological sciences were stuck on Aristotle’s ideas for a very long time. Beekeepers *knew* the queens were female; they were observed laying eggs…but their exact role was controversial outside of them. In fact, in most circles, it was commonly accepted that the workers gathered the larvae which grew on plants. Again, this is from Aristotle’s work.
So…today it’s completely and 100% accepted that queen bees are, in fact, female…and that the honeybee society is led by women. What changed in Western Society to get this idea accepted?
The exact work which popularized the (scientifically accurate) idea of the honeybee as a female-led society was The Feminine Monarchy, by Charles Butler. However, I’d argue this lady also played a role. The woman in the picture … is Queen Elizabeth, who ruled England from 1558 until her death in 1603. Charles Butler (1560-1647) published The Feminine Monarchy in 1609, and had lived under Queen Elizabeth’s reign for most of his life. This is largely a ‘right place, right time’ situation. At this point, there was a lot of science that was just up and starting. There had been female rulers before, but not at the exact point where people were rethinking their assumptions. The fact that Charles Butler was interested in bees, *and* lived under a female monarch for most of his life, I think played a major role in his decision to substitute one simple word in his book.
That substitution? He called ‘king bees’ ‘queen bees’…and it stuck.
At this point in Europe’s history, there had been several female monarchs so the idea of a female leader didn’t seem so odd. Society was simply primed to accept the idea of a female ruler.
…but this thread isn’t just about words, it’s also about *sex*.