Charles Butler’s The feminine monarchy, or, The history of bees first appeared as a small duodecimo in 1609; it was reprinted, with considerable additions and alterations, as a quarto in 1627, and again in 1634. Though it was intended merely as a bee-keeper’s manual, its beauty and insight render it worthy of a place among the renowned works of nineteenth-century poetry.
While in most matters the work is extraordinarily accurate, it becomes questionable when Butler turns to music. His account of a certain point in the hive’s life cycle might be thought to credit bees with the powers of a masterful composer. Butler’s depiction of this event—which he refers to as “the bees’ madrigal”—appears to present a carefully constructed four-part chorus.
This according to “Charles Butler and the music of the bees” by Gerald R. Hayes (The musical times LXVI/988 [1 June 1925] pp. 512–515). This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, some of Butler’s notations from the later, enlarged edition (note that verso and recto considerations result in part of the notation appearing upside-down). Below, a performance of the work.
Many are the creatures of the air, water, and earth that inhabit the verses of Italian madrigals, sonnets, and canzoni.
The poets of the 16th and 17th centuries—Torquato Tasso, Giovanni Battista Guarini, and Giambattista Marino, to mention the most famous—found an erotic metaphor in the bee, which is both sweet and stinging.
There are also the little parasites that annoy and explore the desired body. All the animal species are represented in this repertoire: insects, fish and crustaceans, snakes, small mammals and ferocious predators, singing birds, and fantastical beasts.
This according to “Hic sunt leones: Animali e musica nella Sicilia nel Cinque e Seicento” by Giuseppe Collisani, an article included in Res facta nova: Teksty o muzyce współczesnej VI/15  pp. 51–68).
Above, a 17th-century Italian bee in a painting by Giovanna Garzoni; below, Giovanni de Macque’s Ne i vostri dolci baci; the work’s text includes the bee metaphor.
Bee imagery has long been a prominent element in song titles and lyrics. Bumble boogie: 100 years of bee imagery in American sound recordings—A discography by William L. Schurk and B. Lee Cooper (Popular music and society XXXIV/4 [October 2011] pp. 493–502) explores several bee themes featured in more than 200 commercial recordings released in the U.S. during the past century.
Themes cited include references to scent, terms of endearment, analogies to bee-related structures and hive-oriented treasures, allusions to romance, sexuality and reproduction, and fears of physical pain and emotional rejection. The discography features recordings released over the past ten decades either as singles (45 or 78 rpm records) or as songs compiled in albums (33⅓ rpm records) or on compact discs.
Below, the sublime Muddy Waters with his classic Honey bee.
Besides his training as a graphic artist, Jean Paucton, the prop man at the Palais Garnier in Paris, studied beekeeping at the Jardin du Luxemboug. In the mid-1980s he ordered his first hive, which was delivered to him at the Opéra, sealed and full of bees. He had intended to take it to his country house north of Paris, but when his plans changed the building’s fireman—who had been raising trout in a huge firefighting cistern under the building—advised him to place them on the seventh-floor roof at the back of the Palais Garnier.
Paucton gradually increased the number of hives to five, and from approximately 75,000 bees he annually collects about 1000 pounds of honey, which he packages in tiny jars, each with the label “Miel récolté sur les toits de l’Opéra de Paris, Jean Paucton”.
Thanks to the concentration of fragrant flowering trees and shrubs at the Bois de Boulogne, the chestnut trees in the Champs Élysées, and the linden trees in the Palais Royal, his honey has an intense floral flavor; it is sold at the Opéra’s gift shop and at the Paris gourmet shop Fauchon.
This according to “Who’s humming at Opera? Believe it or not, bees” by Craig S. Smith (The New York times 152/52,526 [26 June 2003] p. A:4).