Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dissent from a Bee-Keeper

On November 21, 1828, the New England Farmer reprinted a long excerpt from Frederick Butler's Farmer's Manual on the "Management of Bees." [The excerpt originally ran in The North American Review ]. At the end of the excerpt, Butler weighed in on the enemies of bees and the cultural attitudes that complicated things unnecessarily.
The poets, always exalting and magnifying the subjects that they touch, have contributed perhaps more than any other set of writers to mislead our judgement. They endow the bee with memory, and Rogers thinks that it finds its way to the hive by this faculty alone. Nor is it only with regard to the bee, that poets, the worst entomologists in the world, have led us astray. 
Cowper says,
'I would not enter on my list of friends,
Though graced with polished manners and fine sense,
....the man,
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm' 
By worm, we wonder if included the grub-worm. Alas! little did that amiable man think of the mischief that would ensue from this sensibility and tenderness toward insects...
This was the great charge against anti-cruelty proponents--that they were guided by an uninformed sentimentality that became a hindrance to those seeking more informed, rationally-based action.  Poets (would he include Fessenden in this category?) made poor entomologists and guided us in a way contrary to our own best interests.
We really are in a sad plight between our sensibilities and our sense of justice to ourselves.  We say that insects have so multiplied, that we can neither raise grain for our cattle, nor fruit for ourselves. 'Keep the birds near you,' say the philosophers, 'quit the cruel practice of shooting the harmless songsters of the grove, and you will not only be rewarded by seeing that insects decrease, but you will be charmed by their melody.' But, then, we say in answer, that the birds do not discriminate; that they prefer bees to every other insect, and therefore the birds must die. And in reality we must make war upon those birds that show the greatest fondness for our little friends. Let us, at least, show our sense of value of these, by keeping their enemies away, at any rate from their very doors. 
Compare this passage to the comment on birds in an earlier edition of Butler's Manual, published in 1819.
 ...birds, which...are generally the enemies of the Bee, who catch him, and devour him in his flight, are out of the reach of man, and generally go unpunished; except the king-bird and wood-pecker, who hover about the Apiary to feed on the Bees, they may be carefully watched and destroyed.
In 1828 Butler could no longer be quite so matter-of-fact in his identification of birds that should be killed as bee-destroyers. He had to contend with pro-bird arguments, even if he still disagreed. This suggests that bird protection discourse had reached a point of perceived consensus. Those in disagreement had to argue from the position of dissent.

Note that Butler, the anti-sentimentalist, was factually wrong on some counts, including his dismissal of bees' putative power of memory [though Samuel Rogers' specific poetic claim that bees navigated home via the scent of flowers they had visited was indeed wrong] and the birds' preference for bees "to every other insect." As Wilson suggested, even charges against the kingbird had been overstated, more likely to catch drones than worker bees. 

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