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.
The familiar buzz of flying mosquitoes is an important mating signal, with the fundamental frequency of the female’s flight tone signaling her presence. In the yellow fever and dengue vector Aedes aegypti, both sexes interact acoustically by shifting their flight tones to match, resulting in a courtship duet.
Surprisingly, matching is made not at the fundamental frequency of 400 Hz (female) or 600 Hz (male), but at a shared harmonic of 1200 Hz, which exceeds the previously known upper limit of hearing in mosquitoes. Physiological recordings from Johnston’s organ (the mosquito’s “ear”) reveal sensitivity up to 2000 Hz, consistent with observed courtship behavior. These findings revise widely accepted limits of acoustic behavior in mosquitoes.
This according to “Harmonic convergence in the love songs of the dengue vector mosquito” by Lauren J. Cator, et al. (Science 8 January 2009).
Above, the female Aedes aegypti; below, Mosquitos demonstrates another form of harmonic convergence.
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.
The sounds produced by cicadas and other humming, clicking, or thrumming insects may be the basis for human rhythm, synchronization, and dance.
Fruitful areas of study include the acoustics of insect sounds, the imitation of insects and theme of insects in music, jazz performance with insects, and the interconnectedness of species.
This according to Bug music: How insects gave us rhythm and noise by David Rothenberg (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013). Below, Graeme Revell is a composer who likes bugs.
BONUS: Professor Rothenberg puts his clarinet where his mouth is.
More posts about bugs are here.
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.
Insects in rock ’n’ roll cover art is an article and an online database by Joseph R. Coelho, who teaches in the Biology Program at Quincy University.
The article, which can be read online here, was published in American entomologist (L/3 [fall 2004] pp. 142–151). The database (here) is part of a larger project called Insects in rock ’n’ roll music, which also includes lists of insect-related songs, albums, and artist names.
Above, a classic Iron Butterfly album cover. Below, ants dancing to Ant man bee from the legendary Trout mask replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
Many thanks to the Improbable Research blog for alerting us about Professor Coelho’s work!
Béla Bartók is renowned as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and as one of the founders of ethnomusicology. Less known is his love of animals, particularly his fascination with insects.
When he was a child he bred silkworms, and later he systematically collected insects, assembling a beautiful assortment. His son Béla Jr. recalled helping him with this hobby. “The most important instruction that he gave…was that no pain whatsoever was to be inflicted on the animals. And so he always took the appropriate drug with him on his insect-collecting expeditions. The insects, therefore, died and came into his collection without any suffering.”
This according to “The private man” by Béla Bartók, Jr. (as translated by Judit Rácz), which is included in The Bartók companion (London: Faber & Faber, 1993).
Today is Bartók’s 130th birthday! Above, a watercolor caricature of him as an insect enthusiast by his cousin Ervin Voit. Below, Zoltán Kocsis plays his “Mese a kis légyrõl” (From the diary of a fly, Mikrokosmos, BB 105, Sz. 107, VI/142).
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).
Franz Niemetschek’s legendary report that La clemenza di Tito was composed in 18 days was not seriously challenged until 1960, when Tomislav Volek published important archival materials relating to the chronology of the opera’s composition. Physical evidence from the autograph manuscript, including the remains of a fly squashed on the paper (probably by the composer in the heat of August), contributes to discrediting the hypothesis that Mozart’s work had begun before he signed his July 1791 contract for the opera.
This according to “The chronology of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito reconsidered” by Sergio Durante (Music & letters, 80, no. 4 (Nov 1999): 560–594), where the evidence is described thus:
“On folio 114 of the autograph . . . a thick black spot in the shape of a cross is found. . . . On direct and close examination, the centre of the spot proves to host the remains of a fly (a kind of evidence not often found in music sources!). After a long reflection, my best guess is that the fly was smashed under the loose bifolium at the very time of composition, after it had unduly annoyed Mozart at work; he also provided a witty ‘service’ to the insect by marking a cross over it (‘requiescat’!); in any case, such was the force and determination of the action, combined with the gluing action of the ink, that the corpse is still stuck on the page after two hundred years of musicological investigations.” (p. 574)