Reader Athayde Tonhasca Junior submitted an unusual but absorbing contribution about bees, incorporating biology, history, and art. His captions are indented, and don’t forget to click on the photos to enlarge them.
The Western or European honey bee* (Apis mellifera), as well as other bees from the genus Apis, secrete liquid wax through specialised glands located in their abdominal segments. Once exposed to the air, the wax hardens into flakes and falls off. Worker bees chew and mould the wax into honeycomb, the architecturally complex array of cells that store honey and pollen, and house the brood (eggs, larvae and pupae).
Fig. 1. Wax coming out of glands on the underside of the bee’s abdomen © Helga Heilmann/Barrett 2015, Encaustics.
Beeswax is a natural plastic and lubricant, used since prehistory for polishing, waterproofing, metal casting and embalming. Beeswax candles were a convenient alternative to smoky, messy and stinky torches, oil-fuelled lamps and tallow candles. The popularity of beeswax candles rose with the spread of Christianity then fell after the Reformation, when candlelight lost its importance in liturgical practices. But beeswax is still a profitable commodity for candle manufacture, for the preservation of fresh fruit, and in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
The softness and pliability of beeswax presented the ancients with a candle moment (a lightbulb moment was way in the future): a thin layer of wax on a flat piece of wood, stone or metal could be written on with a sharpened stick. The tablet prototype was born.
The Greeks and Romans improved the concept by using a wooden frame shaped like a shallow tray, which was filled with a layer of beeswax. Frames were fastened together with wires or twine, so that tablets could be opened and shut like a book; the edges prevented the waxy surfaces from rubbing against each other. A stylus made from iron, bronze or bone was used to scratch words in the wax.
Fig. 2. Reproductions of a Roman wax tablet and a stylus © Peter van der Sluijs, Wikimedia Commons.
Tablets were portable and reusable writing surfaces; the beeswax could be warmed and the surface smoothed over. The stylus was flattened at one end so it could be used to scrape off any unwanted writing. For the Romans, a tabula rasa (scraped tablet) meant to start over, just as, centuries later, the slate and chalk used by school pupils was the origin of the term ‘a clean slate’. A good writer was said to have ‘a good stylus’. With time, ‘a stylus’ came to mean a distinctive characteristic of any kind, so giving rise to ‘style.’
Figs. 3a & 3b. A Greek man (~500 BC) and a Roman woman (~50 AC) with their wax tablets and styluses © Pottery Fan (a) and Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Wikimedia Commons.
Papyrus and vellum, the sturdy writing media of the day, were expensive and therefore out of reach of most people. Wax tablets were the affordable alternative, thus used widely for ephemeral communications such as letters, drafts, drawings and accounting ledgers. But permanent records such as wills and contracts were registered in wax as well. The earliest written documents recorded in Britain, dating from 50 to 80 AD, are Roman wooden tablets retrieved between 2010 and 2013 from a construction site in London (the Bloomberg Tablets).
Fig. 4. A Bloomberg tablet. Writings on wax left scratches on the wooden surface that can be seen from photographs taken with different angles of light, thus casting shadows upon the tablet surface © Museum of London Archaeology.
Until the Middle Ages, virtually everyone who learned to write did so on a wax tablet. Livy, Ovid, Cicero, Martial and other classical authors mentioned tabulae ceratae (wax tablets) in their texts, so it is likely that much of their thinking was first drafted in beeswax. These writings were then copied over and over onto parchment and later on paper, so they survived over the centuries to inspire, by their own account, William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri and Bernard Shaw.
So, if next summer you find yourself sitting in a garden with a book in your hands while listening to the bees buzzing around you, spare a moment to contemplate the possible connections between them and your book. You will have another reason to cherish the honey bee.
But Apis mellifera was not the only insect to have made a considerable contribution to the culture and literacy of the Western world.
No doubt you’ve seen plants with abnormal growths that resemble tumours or warts in animals. These are galls, which are caused by agents such as viruses, nematodes, mites and insects. When a plant is invaded by a gall-forming organism, it produces hormones that make the cells in the affected area enlarge and multiply quickly, creating bizarre deformations in an array of colours, shapes and sizes. Some plants are severely weakened by galls (the French wine industry was devastated by the grape gall in the 1860s), but many show no ill effects.
Fig 5. Common spangle galls on a leaf of common oak (Quercus robur) © Roger Griffith, Wikimedia Commons.
Gall wasps (Family Cynipidae) are the main gall-forming organisms in oaks (Quercus spp.) These wasps are small and difficult to spot, since they spend most of their life inside the galls. So it is not surprising that we know little about their biology and ecology; for many species, there are no records of males. Worldwide, about 1,000 species of cynipid wasps have been identified, predominantly in the Northern hemisphere.
When a female gall wasp such as Andricus kollari lays her eggs in the developing buds of an oak tree, chemicals released by her cause the formation of galls that look like marbles hanging from twigs – hence they are known as oak marble galls.
Fig. 6. The oak marble gall wasp, Andricus kollari © Graham Calow, NatureSpot.
Fig. 7. Oak marble galls © Rasbak, Wikimedia Commons.
Galls act as ‘resource sinks’, drawing chemical compounds from other parts of the plant. In the case of oaks, galls concentrate high levels of tannic acid, a substance used throughout the world to produce traditional medicines, hair dyes and tanning agents. Since time immemorial, tannic acid from crushed oak galls has been mixed with water, iron sulphate and gum arabic to produce a bluish-black liquid that adheres well to different surfaces. This concoction, known as iron-gall ink, was the main medium for writing and drawing in the Western world from the 5th to the early 20th century.
Fig. 8. Iron-gall ink © Deborah Miller, The Huntington.
Medieval monks used iron-gall ink to copy manuscripts surviving from antiquity; many of the historical documents in libraries and archives around the world were produced with iron-gall ink, including letters, maps, book-keeping records, ships’ logs, the Domesday Book, Shakespeare’s will, the confession of Guy Fawkes, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, scores of J.S. Bach, early drafts of the American Constitution, and manuscripts of Victor Hugo.
Fig. 9. Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait on iron-gall ink. Turin, Royal Library.
Fig. 10. The Magna Carta, written in iron-gall ink on parchment. The British Library.
After about 1,400 years as the main tool for the production of information, iron-gall ink was replaced in the mid-1800s by India ink, which was cheaper, easier to make and yielded a stronger black colour. The phasing out of iron-gall ink was long overdue because this instrument of creation also destroys: the ink’s iron-tannin mixture is corrosive, so with time paper becomes discoloured and brittle; documents start showing cracks and holes, eventually crumbling away. Conservation teams and curators around the world have their work cut out for them trying to restore and protect the heritage created with the help of some unassuming wasps.
*Honey bee or honeybee? Bumble bee or bumblebee?
Both are accepted forms, but some dictionaries recommend spelling ‘honeybee’, ‘housefly’ and ‘bedbug’ as one word, a style followed by The New York Times and The Guardian. But many entomologists – and The Entomological Society of America – follow the ‘Snodgrass Rule’:
‘Regardless of dictionaries, we have in entomology a rule for insect common names that can be followed. It says: If the insect is what the name implies, write the two words separately; otherwise run them together. Thus we have such names as house fly, blow fly, and robber fly contrasted with dragonfly, caddicefly, and butterfly, because the latter are not flies, just as an aphislion is not a lion and a silverfish is not a fish. The honey bee is an insect and is preeminently a bee; “honeybee” is equivalent to “Johnsmith.”’ —Robert E. Snodgrass, Anatomy of the Honey Bee, 1956.
There are many kinds of bees: sweat bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, and bumble bees among them. The ‘bee’ part of the word is a reflection of the insect’s identity, and so it stands on its own.
A bed bug and a stink bug are real bugs (insects from the order Hemiptera), whereas a ladybug is not (it’s a beetle). And for many entomologists, the ‘yellow jacket’ used as a synonym for wasp in some dictionaries should be reserved for a jacket that’s yellow; the insect is a ‘yellowjacket’.