The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2018

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MAR 2018 Issue
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Bees, Ants, Spiders, and a Side of Bacon

Honey bees from the University of Illinois Bee Research Facility (“Illini bees”), Photo: Brian Stauffer, U of I News Bureau.

Francis Bacon, a brilliant scientist-philosopher who lived and died four centuries ago, is often considered the father of the scientific method, inasmuch as he pioneered the concept of using inductive rather than deductive reasoning along with hypothesis testing by falsification as the means of acquiring new knowledge. As such, he can certainly be considered among the most creative scientists of all time. After all, he developed a method for advancing science that has remained the foundation of the scientific enterprise even today. It has not escaped my notice as an entomologist that, in his revolutionary Novum Organum Scientarium [“new instrument of science”], the opus in which he laid out his thoughts on the pursuit of knowledge, Bacon used arthropods metaphorically to illustrate the different approaches to scientific investigations of his era:

Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.1

Bacon would seem to be arguing that men who handle sciences should emulate the bee in taking the middle course, gathering knowledge from the past, transforming it, and digesting it. It’s more than a little ironic that, were men of science truly to emulate the bees, they would have to undergo a sex change first, given that the individuals in the social structure of Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, doing all of the gathering, transforming, and digesting are females. Bacon can be forgiven for gender bias, in view of the fact that Jan Swammerdam did not publish his paradigm-shifting discovery that the “king bee” in the hive has ovaries until fifty years after Bacon’s death. 

The truth is, just as in natural communities, where ants, bees, and spiders are integral parts of food webs, there’s a place for all kinds of creativity in science. Like ants, many entomologists devote their careers to collecting and curating past knowledge, in some cases literally collecting and archiving specimens. Creativity in this pursuit lies in organizing the mountains of accumulated data so that relevant information is retrievable when needed. Many entomologists are like bees, gleaning accepted facts from many sources, distilling down, and digesting that information, and, through devising and experimentally testing hypotheses, transform it to add incrementally to the inventory of scientific knowledge. But there’s a need for spiders, too; entomologists (or, more metaphorically precise, arachnologists) who come up with radical new ideas de novo, spinning “cobwebs out of their own substance” with flashes of brilliance, can instigate a scientific revolution that changes the course of scientific investigation for decades to follow.

Swammerdam’s use of dissection to transform well-established preconceived notions about gender to reveal the matriarchal nature of the honey bee colony was itself bee-like in nature; Karl von Frisch’s Nobel-winning insight leading to the breakthrough decoding of the honey bee dance language was spider-like in its novelty; and the 2006 sequencing of the honey bee genome, a collaboration involving more than sixty scientists from around the world, represents an ant-like herculean data-collecting effort that can be used to sustain the scientific enterprise for the foreseeable future. Of course, of all types of scientists, entomologists are probably the most likely to appreciate arthropod metaphors; it should be interesting to see what they might come up with in the next four hundred years.


  1. Francis Bacon, trans. Rev. G.W. Kitchin, The Novum Organon,; Or, a True Guide to the Interpretation of Nature: Book One (1620), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1855, page 78.


May R. Berenbaum

MAY R. BERENBAUM is Head and Swanlund Professor of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently, her research is focused on investigating how honey bees process natural and synthetic toxins, including pesticides. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, she chaired the 2007 NAS study on the Status of Pollinators in North America and has been an active advocate for pollinator conservation. In 2014, she received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2018

All Issues