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The late 17th century was a time of major political and scientific change in England; not only had the monarchy returned to power after over a decade of absence, but major structural changes were taking place in the world of natural philosophy. Questions about the relationship between the structure of government, the pursuit of knowledge, and God’s plan for society as a whole were the subject of active and public debate. One technology, though itself arguably a curio, sits at the nexus of complex interactions between politics, religion, and science in the period. In the 1660s, glass beehives revealed the daily workings of the bee world to human eyes for the first time, delighting observers from Samuel Pepys to King Charles II himself. The brief enthusiasm of 17th-century men of means for these hives suggests a moment of union between the practice of observation, the natural world as an object of study, and the perceived moral importance of studying nature for politics and society. 

This paper will center on three hive designs described in Samuel Hartlib’s Reformed Commonwealth of Bees, though it will also draw on descriptions of glass hives from the papers of Samuel Pepys, Robert Boyle, and John Evelyn. Though each writer offered different mechanisms for how glass hives would affect the broader political and moral order, all agreed on the importance of direct observation and the wide implications of this project for society at large. The paper will conclude with a brief discussion of glass hives and the science of beekeeping in subsequent years. Although the heyday of these hives was short-lived, it marked a definitive shift in beekeeping’s status as a scientific pursuit; the 17th century onwards, beekeeping would be practiced by natural philosophers, and would never entirely lose its status as a potential source and object of scientific insights, including those with ethical implications.


Marlis Hinckley is a PhD candidate in History of Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. Her research deals with the influence of gardening on the botanical sciences, with a particular focus on colonial Mexico and Spain.


All welcome- this seminar is free to attend but booking is required.