It was not until the 18th century that European natural philosophers undertook the scientific study of bee colonies and began to understand the complex and hidden world of bee biology. Preeminent among these scientific pioneers were Swammerdam, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, Charles Bonnet, and François Huber. Swammerdam and Réaumur were among the first to use a microscope and dissection to understand the internal biology of honey bees. Réaumur was among the first to construct a glass walled observation hive to better observe activities within hives.
He observed queens laying eggs in open cells, but still had no idea of how a queen was fertilized; nobody had ever witnessed the mating of a queen and drone and many theories held that queens were “self-fertile,” while others believed that a vapor or “miasma” emanating from the drones fertilized queens without direct physical contact.
Huber was the first to prove by observation and experiment that queens are physically inseminated by drones outside the confines of hives, usually a great distance away.
Following Réaumur’s design, Huber built improved glass-walled observation hives and sectional hives that could be opened like the leaves of a book. This allowed inspecting individual wax combs and greatly improved direct observation of hive activity.
Although he went blind before he was twenty, Huber employed a secretary, François Burnens, to make daily observations, conduct careful experiments, and keep accurate notes over more than twenty years. Huber confirmed that a hive consists of one queen who is the mother of all the female workers and male drones in the colony.
He was also the first to confirm that mating with drones takes place outside of hives and that queens are inseminated by a number of successive matings with male drones, high in the air at a great distance from their hive. Together, he and Burnens dissected bees under the microscope and were among the first to describe the ovaries and spermatheca, or sperm store, of queens as well as the penis of male drones.
Huber is universally regarded as “the father of modern bee-science” and his “Nouvelles Observations sur Les Abeilles (or “New Observations on Bees”) revealed all the basic scientific truths for the biology and ecology of honeybees.