Tag Archives: science

Buzzing in the Stacks

Yes I am, but on this occasion there was a definite fuzzy-humming-buzzing sound which caught my ear, and then my eye as I noticed this book on the shelf:

Thomas Hill, A Profitable Instruction of the Perfect Ordering of Bees, (London, 1608)

Thomas Hill, A Profitable Instruction of the Perfect Ordering of Bees (London, 1608).

And this got me thinking about the significance of bees and how these tiny yet vital creatures deserve far more prestige.

Ok, here are some quick facts. There are over 250 different types of bee in the UK. Of these, 25 are bumblebees and only 1 is a honeybee. Not sure of your honey from your bumble? Me neither, so I’ll buzz it down for you:

Bumblebees are generally the fat, sorry, fuller and furry type and live in nests with roughly 50-400 other bees. They live in the wild so may well be a familiar sight in your garden or the countryside, and they only make small amounts of a honey-like substance (i.e. nectar) for their own food.

Bumblebee by Richard Holgersson

Bumblebee, by Richard Holgersson.

The honeybee on the other hand, is one of a kind and smaller and slightly slimmer in appearance, more like a wasp. Honeybees live in hives of up to 60,000 bees and are looked after by beekeepers, though wild colonies do exist. Honeybees store a lot more nectar because of their larger colonies and longer life cycles. It is essentially their food supply for the colder months. This nectar is mixed with a bee enzyme and is later fanned by the bees, making it more concentrated.  Both bees are crucial to pollination and both are, sadly, in serious decline.

Honeybee large by Joshua Tree National Park

Honeybee, by Joshua Tree National Park.

In ancient and early modern times, their abundance and importance were widely recognised, particularly with regards to the honeybee. Beekeeping, or Apiculture, if you want to get all technical on me, is the maintenance of honeybee colonies, usually in man-made hives. The production of honey for domestic use is well documented in ancient Egypt, while in Greece, beekeeping was seen as a highly valued and sophisticated industry. The lives of bees and beekeeping are covered in great detail by Aristotle, while the Roman writers Virgil, Gaius Julius Hyginus, Varro and Columella wrote about the art of beekeeping.

Thomas Hill, Ordering of Bees, (1608) Table of contents

Hill, Ordering of Bees, (1608), table of contents.

Some of their writings formed the basis of Thomas Hill’s A Profitable Instruction of the Perfect Ordering of Bees, the first English manual for beekeepers published in 1568 as an appendage to Hill’s larger work on gardening. His aim was to highlight the benefits of ‘their hony and waxe and how profitable they are for the commonwealth, and how necessary for man’s use’, while his contemporary, Alan Fleming, looked to ‘A Swarme of Bees’ and their behaviour as the perfect example of proper spiritual conduct.

Beekeeping was a common occupation throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Amongst the abundance of popular information contained in contemporary almanacs, advice on aspects of beekeeping is regularly offered. Housekeeping manuals such as such as S. M. Mathew’s Y Tŷ a’r Teulu (The House and Family) (Denbigh, 1891) provided practical instructions on ‘the Care of Bees’ and the best ways to retrieve honey. The most comprehensive treatment of the subject however, is Y Gwenynydd – (The Beekeeper) (or the Apiarist if you still want to be technical about it). Published in 1888, this compact little Welsh book was largely the work of an accomplished beekeeper from Dinas Mawddwy, who was encouraged by his co-author to publish a book on bees for the ‘benefit of our fellow countrymen’, since ‘we did not have one in Welsh’.

Y Gwenynydd, Title page (1888) Salis

Huw Puw Jones & Michael D. Jones, Y Gwenynydd (The Beekeeper), (Bala, 1888).

Could this be the first Welsh-language beekeeping manual that we have in our Salisbury Collection? What a buzz! A unique piece of work it definitely is. In Wales, we are told, there is a saying that ‘the bee is such a skilful creature that it can draw honey from a stone’. While the latter is demystified throughout the book which explains the life-cycle of honeybees and the different species, the types of hives used, how to build them and the best methods to extract honey – the bees’ skill is never underestimated.

Honey Extracor, Y Gwenynydd

Image detail of ‘The Rapid Honey Extractor’ from Y Gwenynydd, (1888).



This may explain why bees were as much an object of ‘superstition’ as admiration.  It was considered lucky if bees made their home in your roof, or if a strange swarm arrived in your garden or tree, but unlucky if a swarm left.  Bees were believed to take an interest in human affairs, hence it was customary to notify bees of a death in the family. The news would be whispered to the hive, and if they were not notified, another death would soon follow. Turning the hive, or tying a black ribbon to it, thus placing it in mourning also had the same effect, and similar customs were observed for happier occasions such as weddings. Writing about these beliefs, the Welsh cleric and antiquarian, Elias Owen, noted that the ‘culture of bees was once more common than it is, and therefore they were much observed’.

Although they may seem strange to us today, such beliefs point to a past awareness of how fundamental bees were to our daily lives and how we should be more attentive to them, more so now that they are under threat. This is why the efforts of organisations such as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Pollen8 Cymru, and Professor Baillie and his team at Cardiff University (one of the UK’s first bee-friendly campuses), who are encouraging people to plant more wildflowers to help the bee population and conducting research into the antibacterial properties of honey in the treatment of wounds and the fight against antimicrobial resistance, are so important. Again, this is something that was not lost on our early bee backers. Hill notes the extensive medicinal benefits of honey as a preservative and cleanser, which is good ‘to avail against surfeits’, ‘put away drunkeness’ and to ‘expel humours’, not to mention its ‘profitable’ application to ‘filthy ulcers’; open wounds; ringworm; corns; swellings; ‘dropsie bodies’ (oedema); impostumes (abcesses); earache; dimness of sight and all diseases of the lungs to name just a few. With history and science combined, we can do our bit for the bees and get a very sweet return indeed. And so the moral of this blog post?  Well honey, it’s simple. Read a book, plant a flower, and become a lifeline for British bees.

Hidden killers of the Victorian home

corsetTonight’s BBC4 documentary, Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home (10pm) reveals just how many ‘innovative’ domestic products and gadgets harboured deadly poisons and diseases.

Researchers from Modern TV spent several days  in Special Collections and Archives consulting illustrated Victorian periodicals, gathering stills for the documentary. Many useful images, often adverts, were found in Punch, the Illustrated London News, The Graphic, and magazines aimed at the Victorian housewife, such as The Sketch, The Queen, and Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Over 1000 images were gathered in the research process.

The documentary explores the presence of arsenic in Victorian wallpaper, lead in toys’ paint, the unsafe use of gas and electricity, and unsterilised babies’ feeding bottles. It also explores the detrimental effect that the introduction of metal eyelets had on corsetry. The eyelets allowed women’s corsets to be pulled even tighter in the indulgence of fashion, causing considerable damage to the back and internal organs, and increased the risk of miscarriage, as many women continued to wear restrictive corsets throughout pregnancy.

Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home is available on iPlayer until 11th April 2013.

Life through a lens: exploring the miniature world with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

I was very happy to come across this 1667 edition of Robert Hooke’s fascinating Micrographia among our Early English collections. Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses was the first book in English about the microscope and comprises a detailed record of Hooke’s observations of plants, insects and fossils through his lenses, and a demonstration of the power of the emerging science of microscopy.

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 on the Isle of Wight and studied at Westminster School before becoming assistant to the chemist Robert Boyle in Oxford. He had very wide interests in astronomy, biology, physics, architecture and chemistry, and, after being appointed Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society in 1662, became arguably the greatest experimental scientist of the 17th century, although Hooke’s legacy has long been overshadowed by that of his more famous contemporary, Sir Isaac Newton.

First issued in 1665, Hooke’s Micrographia was the first major work to be published by the Royal Society and has claims to be the first scientific best-seller, inspiring much public interest in the unseen miniature world. Samuel Pepys went so far as to proclaim it “the most ingenious book that I have ever read in my life”.

Micrographia is best known for its detailed copperplate engravings of Hooke’s discoveries, including several magnificent fold-out plates such as the famous flea below. The book also describes a fly’s eye and a plant cell for the first time (Hooke himself coined the biological term “cell” because the walls in plant cells reminded him of monks’ cells in a monastery).

Hooke’s drawing of a flea viewed under his microscope, “adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed.”

Hooke was the first scientist to examine fossils under the microscope and the first to note the similarities between living shells and fossil shells, which had up to then been considered a type of stone rather than a once-living organism.

Robert Hooke devised and constructed his own compound microscope

He claimed in Micrographia that the fossils were really “the Shells of certain Shel-fishes, which, either by some Deluge, Inundation, earthquake, or some such other means, came to be thrown to that place, and there to be fill’d with some kind of Mud or Clay, or petrifying Water, or some other substance.” More than 200 years before Darwin espoused the theory of evolution by natural selection, this remarkable man had discovered that changes in life on Earth were documented in the fossil record.

Mapping the heavens and earth: Apian’s Cosmographia in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection

Petrus Apianus (1495-1552), also known as Peter Apian, was Professor of Mathematics at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany and a pioneer in astronomical and mathematical instrumentation. Apian is best known for his studies in the science of cosmography and we hold several editions of his works here in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection.
Cosmography was a broad science which aimed to provide a mathematical basis for mapping the position of everything in the universe, and Apian’s work required not only his skill in mathematics but also expertise in geography, navigation, astronomy, and cartography. He published manuals for astronomical instruments, printed scientific works on his own press, and crafted volvelles, or “Apian wheels”, for the calculation of time and distance.

In 1524 Apian produced his first major work, Cosmographia, which provided readers with a guide to cosmography and an introduction to the disciplines of astronomy, geography, cartography, navigation and instrument making. Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), a Dutch mathematician and student of Apian, produced several expanded editions of the Cosmographia, including the 1545 and 1584 editions we have in SCOLAR. The book remained popular throughout the 16th century, being reprinted more than 30 times and in 14 languages.

Cosmographia describes various scientific instruments, but there are also several working paper examples of Apian’s volvelles included in the text, with which readers could find the positions of the sun, moon and planets, or calculate latitude using the sun’s height above the horizon. Interestingly, the moving parts in Cardiff’s copies of Cosmographia have been printed on the back of used paper – perhaps an early example of recycling to keep costs down. Considering the practical nature of the volvelles, it is also remarkable that these delicate instruments have survived in such good condition.