Charles Butler (beekeeper)

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Charles Butler (1560–1647), sometimes called the Father of English Beekeeping,[1] was a logician, grammarist, author, minister (Vicar of Wootton St Lawrence, near Basingstoke, England), and an influential beekeeper. He was also an early proponent of English spelling reform. He observed that bees produce wax combs from scales of wax produced in their own bodies; and he was among the first to assert that drones are male and the queen female, though he believed worker bees lay eggs.


Butler was born into a poor family in Buckinghamshire, South East England, but was admitted to Oxford as a working student with scholastic scholarships. He remained at Oxford ten years, probably teaching, and graduating with his Master of Arts in 1587. In 1593, Rev. Butler became Rector of Nately Scures in Hampshire, and later Master at the Holy Ghost School, Basingstoke. He resigned to accept a pastorage at Wootton St Lawrence in 1600 and served that rural post to his death in 1647.


Butler was engaged in beekeeping at his rural parsonage in Hampshire and made the first recorded observations about the generation of beeswax, which was previously thought to be gathered by honeybees from plant materials. He was not the first to describe the largest honeybee as a queen, rather than king - a distinction usually granted to Spaniard Luis Mendez de Torres for his 1586 observation, which was confirmed by Swammerdam's later microscopic dissections. However, Butler popularized the notion with his classic book The Feminine Monarchie, 1609. Butler may have misinterpreted the queen's function when he found queenless colonies sometimes develop eggs laid by "laying workers", however there is no doubt he saw the queen as an Amazonian ruler of the hive. As an influential beekeeper and author, his assertion that drones are male and workers female, was quickly accepted. For his discoveries and his book, Butler is sometimes called the Father of English Beekeeping.

The Feminine Monarchie[edit]

The Feminine Monarchie, originally published by Joseph Barnes, Oxford, in 1609, is the first full-length English-language book about beekeeping. It remained a valid and practical guide for beekeepers for two hundred fifty years, until Langstroth and others developed and promoted moveable comb hives. Butler revised The Feminine Monarchie in 1623 and 1634. It was translated into Latin in 1678 and 1682, then from Latin back to English again in 1704. The title expresses Butler's main idea that the colony is governed, not by a king-bee, as Aristotle claimed, but by a queen-bee. The last edition written by Butler contains ten chapters, including sections regarding bee gardens, hive-making materials, swarm catching, enemies of bees, feeding bees, and the benefits of bees to fruit (pollination). The book gives an excellent account of skep beekeeping, including methods of predicting - from tone pitch of the buzzing bees - when swarming might occur. Butler even transliterated the tones and included them on a musical score in the book. He further suggested that musicians may trace the roots of music back to the sounds of the hive.[2]

Spelling reform[edit]

Charles Butler published an English grammar (1633) with proposals to improve spelling to a phonetic alphabet. In his book, Butler condemned the vagaries of traditional English spelling and proposed the adoption of a system whereby 'men should write altogeđer according to đe sound now generally received'. The 1634 edition of his beekeeping classic was written and published in his new orthography.

Other writings[edit]

Butler authored a bestselling school textbook, The Logic of Ramus (1597), an introduction to the philosophy of the Protestant French contemporary Pierre de la Ramée. He also published a book on music theory, The principles of musik (1636), and a theological defence of marriage between first cousins, coinciding with the engagement and subsequent marriage of his daughter to his nephew.


  1. ^ The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Beekeeping, Roger Morse and Ted Hooper, 1985, E.P. Dutton, Inc.
  2. ^ Sarton, George (1943). "The Feminine Monarchie of Charles Butler", Isis, Vol 34, No 6. pp. 469-472.