Mendel's Bees

Discover magazine offered in its March issue "20 Things You Didn't Know about Bees," and I, library copy in hand, read through the list before yesterday afternoon's showing of Indoctrinate U at the Cleveland Institute of Art's Cinematheque.

Number 14 stood out: "After he had pioneered the laws of genetics with pea plants, Austrian monk Gregor Mendel bred a strain of hybrid bees. Unfortunately, they were so vicious he had to kill them."

That claim struck me as apocryphal. I searched online and learned three things. First, Gregor Mendel did in fact keep bees. Second, an online source from 2001, apparently the oldest, describes the successfully hybrid hive as violent, using the same descriptor in not only Discover but, too, a Wikipedia article — "vicious" — which raises the possibility of uncritical duplication, since while bee behavior can be classified as aggressive, biologists don't impute it to malice. Third, the book Gregor Mendel's Experiments on Plant Hybrids: A Guided Study states that "Despite extreme care in his breeding methods and keeping the beehouse in perfect condition, he was unsuccessful in producing new varieties because, as we know, reproduction in bees is highly complex."

There are two explanations for the contradiction: either preoccupation with the dangerous African honeybee was, at some point, interpolated into the historical record; or, concealed in the order's shame, Gregor Mendel really descended on what he called "my dearest little animals" like Saturn himself. The burden of proof rests on the supposed tragedy. Forensicists should target the beehouse at the Abbey of Saint Thomas and look for signs of a desperate, Catholic-Apoidean struggle.

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