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Eric Miller

Shock and Awe

An obsession with bees.

I want someone to write a book on "heedlessness," tracking the theme wherever it leads through the world's literatures, the way Roberto Calasso does in his extraordinary books. For this, it seems, is the single most salient quality of American civilization in 2006: heedlessness. If the articles in this special section have a common theme, it is to urge us in the opposite direction: to pay attention, not least to consider the inadvertent consequences of our own actions; to look around at the places where we live and the bees and birds and rabbits and such as we share the land with. That is a program we should be able to agree on, without in any way supposing that all of our differences will thereby be resolved.

Jan Swammerdam was a young Dutch scientist devoted to God but haunted by bees. Between the years 1669 and 1673, he studied the honey bee with extraordinary intensity. He followed it. He sketched it. He probed it. He sliced it. He took notes and made drawings and more, day after day.

The microscope, newly available for this end, became for him a tool of intimate use, a means to see, marvel, and judge. By 1669, at the age of thirty-two, he had already become a path-breaking figure in entomology with the publication of Historia Generalis Insectorum. Narrowing his focus in subsequent years to the honey bee, he was able to establish, finally, that the queen bee indeed has ovaries and is thus responsible for all of the thousands of eggs swarming to life in her hive—just one of many grand mysteries he illumined and enlarged.

Hattie Ellis writes of "the exquisite dexterity" of Swammerdam's dissections as seen in his drawings. His tools were delicately miniature, requiring a microscope for proper sharpening, and his labor was arduous. By the time he brought his bee studies to a close, she notes, his "body and mind were battered; some think he never recovered."

A mere "obsessive"? Or a captive of wonder, perhaps, reaching toward mystery with unyielding, self-sacrificing ...

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