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The curious feminist history of queen bees


This Twitter thread reveals an interesting crossover between entomology and gender studies.

For nearly 2,000 years, the bees responsible for mothering nearly all of the bees in a particular hive were mistakenly termed “king bees,” and the Twitter users at Ask An Entomologist are here to tell us why.

Though generally upholding the ideals of facts and objectivity, even the world of science is never free from personal and societal biases. And one of the most obvious places we find this is in the names scientists have chosen to christen their findings. What we now call “worker bees” were once termed “slaves” because they were named at a time when slavery was common and acceptable.

Even as early as the time of Aristotle, it was widely hypothesised that the largest bee in the hive acted as a leader or ruler in some way, behaviorally and reproductively. However, because Aristotle, among others, viewed reproduction as a primarily masculine initiative, he assumed that these bees must be kings — not queens.

Even after scientists had observed the bees laying eggs and subsequently realized they were female, the name still stuck and their femininity went unacknowledged.

So how did these ladies finally get their due?

Entomologist Charles Butler published The Feminine Monarchy in 1609, and Ask An Entomologist theorizes that living under Queen Elizabeth for most of his life influenced Butler’s acknowledgment of the honeybee matriarchy.

Butler was the first to change “king” bees to “queen” bees, and history hasn’t looked back.

It still took the influence of biologist Jan Swammerdam and beekeeper Francois Huber to figure out how bees actually mate and thus finalize the theory. But you can check out the full story here.

In the end, the moral of the story is that no human endeavor is without bias and cultural assumptions, and the standards to which we hold ourselves today will influence the information others inherit from us tomorrow.

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