15 June 2016

The secret life of bees: the life and work of Eva Crane

As we celebrate the opening of The Hive at Kew Gardens, this week’s Library, Art and Archives blog takes a moment to look at the life and work of Eva Crane, one of the 20th century’s most influential apiculturalists.

By Francesca Railton

A bee on a pink flower

Early life and academic career

Eva Crane was born Ethel Eva Widdowson on 12 June 1912 to parents Thomas Henry (Harry) Widdowson and Rose, née Elphick. She had an older sister, Elsie, who went on to be a prominent academic in the field of nutrition. Eva was educated at Sydenham School in south London, where her academic ability was obvious from a young age. She was a talented linguist, scientist and mathematician, and won a scholarship to study mathematics at King’s College, London. Eva completed her degree in two years and gained a second degree in physics a year later. It wasn’t until after she had completed an MSc in quantum mechanics and a PhD in nuclear physics, and held lecturerships at both Sheffield and Hull that Eva’s interest in bees began.

The beginnings of an interest in bees

In July 1942 Eva married James Alfred Crane, an insurance broker then serving in the Royal Navy. The most common retelling of the beginnings of Eva’s love for bees has it that she was given a beehive as a wedding present, and kept bees in order to have a ready supply of honey during a time of national sugar shortage. However, there is a receipt to her for three hives and beekeeping equipment from November 1940, and a letter from 1941 in which she tells her husband about the current state of her hives, so we can see that her initial interest in bees began before her marriage.


The International Bee Research Association

Eva Crane was first and foremost a scientist, so it is admirable but perhaps unsurprising that she soon began producing her own academic literature relating to bees and beekeeping. Her first articles, both of which were published in 1945, were on honey and mead respectively. On 24 January 1949 Eva founded the Bee Research Association, which added the word ‘International’ to its name at a conference in 1976 (henceforth IBRA). IBRA was initially based in the Cranes’ living room in their house in Chalfont St Peter, Berkshire. The organisation moved from the Cranes’ house to Hill House in the same village. Eva remained head of the association until 1984. In 1986 IBRA moved to headquarters in Cardiff. It is now a virtual organisation.

Apicultural journals

We owe much of the state of current scientific literature on apiculture to Eva Crane’s work. In 1950 she took over the running of the journal Bee World. As this was not an academic publication, some scientists were unhappy with their research being published here. This led in 1962 to the creation of The Journal of Apicultural Research, which remains one of the foremost journals in the field. As well as this in Bee World Eva published abstracts of apicultural articles from across the globe. These eventually took up enough space in Bee World to merit the publication of Apicultural Abstracts, which ran from 1950-2005. In the days before the internet the journal was an invaluable resource for apiculturalists, as they could use it both to showcase their own research and to come across apicultural articles that they would not otherwise have discovered.

Eva Crane's bee books

As well as publishing more than 180 articles on apiculture, Eva Crane wrote a number of books, some of which are considered classics in their field. When she thought that a book was needed to further apicultural research, Eva was happy to let her feelings be known – the book ‘Honey: a comprehensive survey’ came about because Eva approached the publishing house Heinemann and told them that work on the area was needed. ‘Bees and Beekeeping’ (1990) and ‘The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting’ (1999) are the two encyclopaedic works for which she is best known. In a slightly different vein to her academic work is her book ‘Making a Bee-line’, in which she describes her travels to sixty countries over a fifty year period, all in search of the secrets of the bee. 

Eva Crane’s legacy

Eva Crane also set up The Eva Crane Trust, a charity which aims to ‘further the understanding of bees and beekeeping’, and which gives grants to those who are engaged in apicultural research and who might not be able to secure project funding elsewhere. Much of her estate was bequeathed to the Trust upon her death in 2007. For anyone interested in learning more about why bees are so important, both to plants and to us, we can hardly recommended a better place to start than with the works of Eva Crane.

- Francesca Railton -

Library Graduate Trainee

Further reading

Crane, Eva (1972). Pollination of seed crops: a summary of research reported in Apicultural Abstracts, 1959-1971, London.
Crane, Eva (1976). Honey: a comprehensive survey, London.
Crane, Eva (1978). Bibliography of tropical apiculture: satellite bibliographies, London.
Crane, Eva (1990). Bees and Beekeeping: science practice and world resources, New York.
Crane, Eva (1999). The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, London.
Crane, Eva (2003). Making a Bee-Line: my journeys in sixty countries, 1949-2000, Cardiff.
Crane, Eva and Walker, Penelope (1984). Pollination Directory for World Crops, London.
Crane, Eva, Walker, Penelope, and Day, Rosemary (1984). Dictionary of Important World Honey Sources, London.
Walker, Penelope and Jones, Richard (2008). Eva Crane: bee scientist: 1912-2007, Cardiff.

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