Sunday, 22 January 2017

Sir Christopher Wren's beehive

Sir Christopher Wren was a remarkable man.  Today he is best remembered as England's greatest architect but he didn't turn his hand to architecture until around the age of 30.  Prior to that he was a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford, Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London, and Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford.  His research interests encompassed mathematics, optics, astronomy, physiology, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, cosmology, medicine and meteorology.  He was later a founder member and president of the Royal Society.  His friend and fellow scientist Robert Hooke said of him "Since the time of Archimedes there scarce ever met in one man so great perfection, such a mechanical hand, and so philosophical a mind."

Christopher Wren entered Wadham College, Oxford in 1650 and became a close associate of the Warden, John Wilkins.  (Wilkins drew together a group of young scientists which also included Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis and Robert Hooke, and was to become a forerunner of the Royal Society.)  One of Wren's lesser known exploits at Wadham College was designing a wooden box beehive.  In those days bees were kept in skeps and harvesting the honey usually meant destroying the colony.  Samuel Hartlib's publication in 1655, The Reformed Commonwealth of Bees, included an illustration by Christopher Wren of his three storey hive.

The hive consisted of three identical octagonal boxes with a closable connecting hole between them.  The bees were able to move between the boxes and glass panels were set into the sides to allow observers to see inside. The key down the left hand side of the illustration includes "hhh, the Dores, every one to be opened or shut by little slides; the lower dores are open, the others are shut."  Each box was lined with a rush mat but there were no frames.

Christopher Wren wrote to Samuel Hartlib about the hive.

Honored Sir.
You have by severall handes intimated your Desires to mee of having a particular Description of our Three-storied Beehive. I confesse I was not overforward to execute this Command of yours; and my Reason was because, the Devise not fully answering our own Expectation, I thought it would be much more unsatisfactory to you: but since you please to persist in your desires (as Mr Rawlinson told me the other day) I can be noe longer shamelesse to persist in my incivility, especially prompted by mine own Ambition, to find any way to shew my selfe a Servant to a Person soe eminent amongst the Ingeniosi as your selfe.
   The Description I thinke is evident enough in the paper; I shall only tell you what effects wee find. Last May (as I remember) wee put in two swarmes together, leaving the places to goe in, open only on the lowermost, but all the passage holes open from Box to Box: In the midlemost they first began their Combes then in the lowermost before they had filled the middlemost, & soe continued till they had filled both, which before they had quite finished, they began to make 2 litle Combes in the upper Box (all this while deserted) & continued besides, a part of a Combe of the middle story, an inch or 2 up into the upper box, filling all allmost the passage hole quite up, leaving themselves only a litle hole as big as 2 fingers might goe in, for their passage up & down: I am not very certain wheither this was not done at first when they wrought in the middle Box, & wheither this was not the reason why they wrought soe little in the upper box, because they stopped themselves up from and easy passage to it: The Combes in the lower storeys were well replenished with Hony & suddainly, but these litle Combes in the upper they quite desert, contrary to our Expectation, which was that they would have wrought most in the upper story & the middlemost, in which when they had wrought enough for their owne spending that then wee might take away the uppermost from them, & soe have continued still: but if we find another yeare, that they fill not again the uppermost; 'twill be all one still to take away the lowermost from them; but if that be soe then 2 hives will be sufficient. Wee must rather Desire of you farther light on this businesse, which I presume you can afford us from other mens observations that have tried the like experiment; for as yet ours is imperfect, & we know not what to make of it.  Sir. I am
Your most obedient humble servant          
Chr: Wren.                    
All Soules Coll:
Feb: 26.

Christopher Wren was a scientist rather than a beekeeper and was puzzled (or disappointed) that the bees didn't fill the top box with honey so he could remove it.  Judging by the dimensions on the illustration of his hive above, each box was about 12" deep and more than 18" across, so larger than a modified National hive brood box.  It may be that the bees had enough room in the lower two boxes and didn't feel the need to extend in the the top box.

In 1654 the noted diarist John Evelyn visited John Wilkins and was shown round the garden.

Evelyn wrote "We all din'd at that most obliging and universally Curious Dr Wilkins's at Waddum, who was the first who showed me the Transparent Apiaries, which he had built like Castles and Palaces and so ordered them upon another, as to take Hony without destroying the Bees; These were adorn'd with a variety of Dials, little Statues, Vanes, etc: and he was so abundantly civill, as finding me pleased with them, to present me with one of these Hives, which he had empty, and which I afterwards had in my Garden at Says-Court, many Yeares after; and which his Majestie came on purpose to see and contemplate with much satisfaction."

Christopher Wren was then 22 years old and was given sole credit by Wilkins for designing the transparent beehives.   John Wilkins wrote to John Evelyn in 1656.

Honored Sir.
Yo r letter sent to Oxforde was returned back and found me here at London, Whither I was by some occasions necessitated to come much sooner than I expected. I have here in readines for you, one part of the Bee-hive you desire, according to the same modell I have in Oxford. If you would like to have two other like parts made to this, (Which I would advise) they may be done here in London by the same man who made this. I have taken order that it be left at Mr Beadley according to the direction of yor letter, where yor servant may call for it. I hope to waite upon you before my going out of towne. And shall always be
Most ready to serve you
J Wilkins
April. 2. 1656

Below is John Evelyn's sketch of his hive in his Elysium Britannicum, which is in the British Library, showing all the adornments he described.

The bees didn't always read the instructions, for Wilkins wrote to Evelyn on 16th August 1656, "For that unusual way of the combs in the hive, it may sometimes so happen, and hath done so with me, though according to the usual course they are built edgewise from the place of their entrance.  A window in the side hath this inconvenience in it, that in hot weather when the bees are apt to be busy and angry, a man cannot safely make use of it."  

It is such a pity that none of these hives survives but is it interesting to see how (later Sir) Christopher Wren, one of the greatest scientific minds of the age, was considering improvements to beehive design.


  1. Christopher,

    Perhaps I've missed it, but you haven't answered the burning question, the one I've wanted to ask for years: Are you or are you not an authentic Christopher Wren? Please don't think me impertinent for asking, but it was your name that drove me to your (other) website in the first place.

    I look forward to your posts on beekeeping, as long as you don't ignore your native bees. They, of course, are my favo(u)rite.

    1. I am, Rusty, but no relation. Sir Christopher Wren's line died out after four or five generations so he has no descendants. My great-great grandfather was also a Christopher Wren, something we didn't know until relatively recently. He was an impoverished hatter in Victorian London and died in the workhouse in 1899.
      I certainly won't neglect the native bees but I think they'll stay on TrogTrogBlog.
      Thanks for your interest.

  2. So interesting and I'm learning history! Thanks for stilling my curious mind.