Thomas and Daniel Wildman (floruerunt 1760-1780): Improving the Shining Hour

“June 20 1772 Exhibition of bees on horseback! At the Jubilee Gardens, Islington, this and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted).

The celebrated Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments, never attempted  by any man in this or any other kingdom before.  The riders standing upright, one foot on the saddle and one on the neck, with a mask of bees on his head and face. He also rides standing upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth, and, by firing a pistol makes one part of the bees march over the table, and the other swarm in the air and return to their hive again, with other performances too tedious to insert.”

Imagine only that Lennon had had that poster instead of Pablo Fanque’s!

Daniel was the nephew of Thomas Wildman, both of them serious beemen and serious show offs.  Devon natives of obscure origin, they came to public attention by virtue of their early talent in insect wrangling.

The bee beard is familiar enough these days.  The trick is a matter of getting the queen under your control – early practitioners tied a silk thread to her leg, Wildman simply held on to her –  after which the rest of the colony will follow your every command. Or close enough for show biz. (Important safety tip – make sure the bees have been thoroughly glutted with syrup or honey before putting on the act.  A satiated bee is a happy bee.)

Thomas’ first record of bee bearding at a private performance for Lord and Countess Spencer and guests.  Most people do not get up close and personal with bee colonies, so there was the immediate frisson of the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous, and he played up to it shamelessly.   He moved them here, he moved them there, he made it appear that they would obey his every command, and as no one was stung, the event was counted as a success.

Other private performances followed and he fed into a brief fashion for beekeeping (this is the age of Marie Antoinette and her toy farm, recall).    He went on to write A Treatise on the Management of Bees, which gave the game away to anyone who had the nerve to try it.  No matter.  The books sold out before it was even printed. (It’s actually worth reading, if you have a taste for this sort of thing, with much of interest in the bee line.)

Thomas was followed by nephew Daniel.  Where Thomas played the salons of the high and mighty, Daniel hit the boards for the groundlings of Islington.  Where Thomas wrote a frankly scholarly book, Daniel rushed off the shorter A Complete Guide for the Management of Bees Throughout the Year, a practical guide which was as much as anything a promo for his Bee and Honey Warehouse in Holborn.

Which gets us to the point of the entire enterprise.

Playing the magician and wowing the uninitiated is great good fun, but then as now, a household could use multiple income streams were desirable.*  The chief business in this case was apiary equipment supply and honey.  At the end of the show, patrons were invited to buy jars of Fine Virgen Honey, his “newly invented Hives”, and any quantity of actual bees.  Beyond the mere showmanship and the bee beards, the Wildmans were a force for spreading beekeeping in general and helping shift practitioners from the  traditional dome-shaped skeps to the seemingly Midcentury Modern inspired square highrises that beekeepers use to this day.  Sneered at by the purists they may have been, and perhaps there was a touch of buffoonery in the act – nevertheless, the world would have been a lesser and duller place without them.

For more on these two and on bees in general, see Bee Wilson’s admirable book, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us

(I am going to assume that Thomas and Daniel were the inspiration for the album Bees on Horseback.)

*He was a dab hand at fowl as well.  Audience members were invited to cut off the head of a chicken and watch in amazement as he reconnected said head and revived the ex-bird to full health.

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