Bees: Shown to the Children

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Homegrown Neighbor lent us this beautiful little book. The author is Ellison Hawks (what a name!) and dates to 1912. This book is part of a series of books for kids on various natural history topics, all titled the same way (i.e. X: Shown to the Children). I’d love to see the whole collection.

Every time I read an old children’s book, I’m struck by the sophistication of the language and themes presented, and wonder why this has been lost, and then try not to despair for civilization. Take this passage about intruders to the hive, from the chapter called Workers in the City (in the book, the hive is conceptualized as a bee city). It’s poetic and morbid and violent fascinating–all things I would have loved as a child:

Sometimes a mouse or a snail enters the hive, and then indeed there is great excitement. Imagine a great elephant-like creature, thirty or forty feet high, with a tail thirty feet long, to come walking into one of our cities, and you will have some idea what it seems like to the bees when a mouse is foolish enough to poke its head in the hive! But the bees are not frightened; the guards are promptly called out, and the poor mouse is soon put to death by hundreds of stings. Having made sure that the intruder is quite dead, the bees leave his body to the scavengers, who are confronted with the problem of disposing of it. If it were left it would cause disease and pestilence throughout the city, and it is too big and heavy for them to move. It is true that they might bite it into tiny pieces and thus carry it outside the hive, but this would take too much of the bees’ valuable time. A better plan is thought of, and the body is soon covered over with a thin coating of wax. It is thus embalmed in a beautiful white tomb, which is made perfectly air tight. If the tomb is near to the door, and interferes with the passing in and out of the workers, tunnels are cut through it. Sometimes when we look inside a hive, we may see two or three of these little mounts of was, and we may be sure that each one is the grave of some intruder who had no right to be there.

Granted, I believe foreign bodies in the hive, such as mouse corpses, are actually covered with propolis, not wax, but I’m not going to hold it against the authors. First, I’m not sure if I’m right or not, and at any rate, the idea is the same, and very well described.

There’s so much good to say about this book. It’s illustrated with early photos, line drawings, and pretty full color illustrations. In somewhat more than 100 pages it covers bee anatomy, behavior, the process of collecting nectar, hive society, beekeeping basics and even includes a chapter on “The Ancients” which addresses the apparently long-lasting ancient supposition that bees are born from the rotting bodies of oxen (?!?). I’m wondering if that was more of a symbolic conceit, because surely the ancients were no dummies and could tell the difference between blowflies and bees. But it makes for colorful reading, and again, as a child, I would have been entranced. Even if I couldn’t understand half the words.

Turns out this book is hard to find in the US because it’s an UK title. There’s only one Amazon listing, and it’s $23, and a couple more expensive at Alibris, but lots of UK listings for less. We may have to begin direct negotiations with Homegrown Neighbor for this copy.

UPDATE: A reader wrote in to tell us the whole book is available online, for free, at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. So if you want you can jump over there and page through it. I’d checked Google books, and it’s not there. I’m glad to learn of Hathi. They’ve got three other books in the series, too, btw.

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9 Comments

  1. Nowadays, a child would receive the information using simpler sentence construction, simpler words, and less extraneous use of ink in description. The whole idea would be to make less information available in fewer words. I love antiquarian book stores for just these gems. Thanks for the excerpt.

  2. That sounds like a book I’d love to read and definitely excellent for children. I, too, love that the language isn’t simplified or the gory parts glossed over. I’m off to go see what else is available in this series!

  3. Yes, everything I have read indicates such intruders are encased in propolis as opposed to wax. I’ve never heard of them tunneling through them, though.

    Oh, how I adore early 20th century children’s literature. I wish we still spoke to our children as if they were intelligent…

  4. I love it! I am sure my oldest (four years old) would love it too.

    I have actually found many a good old children’s book at library sales where they library sells old, no longer wanted books. Pasadena libraries seem to do this often and they generally charge only $1 for an entire bag of books! One of my son’s current favorites is a 1970s children’s book called “Compost Critters”.

  5. If you’re looking for more books like this, The Baldwin Project (mainlesson.com) has loads of old children’s books which are available to read online, print up, or purchase (some of them; they are reprints, I believe). Ambleside Online (amblesideonline.org) has book lists with many older books like these, too, and often they have links to places where you can read/print them for free.

  6. What a fantastic book! People always look at us funny when we talk to our 5-year-old like an intelligent, sentient being. Ummm, yeah…he *is*. I say it’s time to start negotiating with your neighbor!

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