Honeybees Build Books: A Journey Through Time

“Save the Bees” has recently become a reoccurring theme in the environmental scene. People are scared that one-day honeybees will disappear. The worry is that if honeybees disappear then so will a lot of crops and produce. That statement is true, but I bet people don’t consider the other uses of bees. Surprisingly, honeybees have made quite the debut in the literature scene. Some of their uses and mentions in early literature trackback to colonial times and helped paved the way for American books. Honeybees build books.

To truly understand the meaning of the honeybee to early Americans we travel back in time all the way to ships sailing from Europe to east coast United States. Researchers know that this bee originated from Egypt and that the honeybees were brought to the states sometime around the early 1600s. On the other hand, historians have puzzled exactly how bees did not fly off the boat and take a detour on the voyage to the Americas, but it is assumed that the journey was made during cold weather so that the bees could be sedated. Once the critter made it to the dry land, they became an instant hit with the immigrants. They kept them in yards to utilize their honey

Depicted is the chapter describing the uses of the honeybee. Photo taken by myself, curtesy of Special Collections
The Office of Good Housewives by F.B

and wax and even used them as a symbol of hard work in their writings. One book that I found while researching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Special Collections might have been one of the first to describe in detail exactly how to keep these insects. The Office of Good Housewives by F.B and it was a step by step guide for housewives instructing them on how to reap the benefits of nature for their families. A chapter at the end of the book described how wives could use honey to feed and wax to make candles for light. People during that time period acknowledged how the term “busy bee” meant that you were doing the most work possible and succeeding in your task. Being compared to a bee was a compliment at its finest. It is refreshing to see how the European immigrants embraced this insect, but not all cultures were amazed by the honeybee. Some Native Americans were skeptical of this insect brought over by European settlers. Jefferson had stated in the Notes on the State of Virginia (1783) that the Natives thought of the bee as the "white man's fly". Some tribes were convinced that most things Europeans brought over to their land were nothing but bad news. Bob Hardy from Carleton College stated, "Looking back at the settlement of Massachusetts, two or three generations after Jefferson was writing, Thoreau similarly saw the honey bee as “prophetic” of the fate of the Native Americans at the hands of white settlers."

The honeybee's wax and glue was used in the actual construction of books as well. During early colonial times they would utilize the bee glue to help secure the binding of books. If you are wondering exactly what bee glue is, it is the material that bees produce to plug the holes in their hives. What is a good insulator for bee’s happens to work perfectly to keep pages bound to a leather binding. Today it is more common to see threads coated in the wax that is used to physically bind book compared to bee glue. When the threads are coated in a substance that is waxy it makes it easier to take hold of them when making books. When dealing with mass-produced books it seems to be very uncommon to see honeybee products used. Large companies use synthetic stuff because it is cheaper and easier, but they lose an organic and authentic charm when they forgo using honeybee products. A honeybee’s natural makings have literally built books for centuries and will continue to build and innovate them in the future. A lot of people are trying to revive the keeping of bees in rural and metropolitan places so that we can use their biproducts to make things like books. I believe that bringing back the normalization of beekeeping will, in the end, benefit more people than we are