Bees are the symbol of hope, life and vulnerability across many cultures. The symbolism does not end here. The ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other mythologically and spiritually oriented groups literally blossomed with divine analogies between the bees and God/s. Infant divinity’s nourishment, the earth’s and even human creation provided answers to fundamental questions about the nature of life that our ancestors asked being as interested as we are.
Nature created to nurture
What bees do beyond honey, propolis and wax production, pollinating and feeding? Perhaps we need bees not just as major pollinators and beautifying, healthful, useful produce makers, but to teach us and to reflect on something about ourselves and our society. Across cultures, bees used to be cherished and valuable beyond their provisions. Perhaps this was connected with our ancestors’ greater awe, gratitude and respect of nature on a vaster social scale than in industrial and post-industrial eras when our focus had shifted to mass-production of goods for human consumption mainly. Isn’t then the answer to contemporary unsustainable culture a shift towards a greater awareness of natural behaviours?
Holistic life analogies
The Chinese and Daoists were fascinated by the morphing of honey into wax, the products of one entity, the bee. The contained (yang) – honey was made into a container (yin) – hexagonally shaped wax by its creator – the bee. The perpetuity of change in taoist philosophy might had been easily deduced from observing the bees’ behaviour. One substance in different manifestations that hold each other and so form the whole to serve each other’s purpose.
The Christians find a similar, yet simpler analogy in Christ as “honey in the rock”. The Biblical Psalm 81:16 casts that “soul is to body as honey is to comb — divine essence housed in an earthly vessel”.
Bee keeping is not just traditional, but also a religious pride in Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Israel and Syria. The Koran ascribes divine power to bees as the exemplars of dutiful useful behaviour. The Sûrah XVI revealed at Mecca carries title — The Bee:
“And thy Lord inspired the bee, saying: Choose thou habitations in the hills and in the trees and in that which they thatch; Then eat of all fruits, and follow the ways of thy Lord, made smooth (for thee). There cometh forth from their bellies a drink diverse of hues, wherein is heeling for mankind. Lo! Herein is indeed a portent for people who reflect.”
The spiritual individuals and their society seem to have harnessed a greater respect for such useful gifts of nature. The self’s ego is diminished by the divine force when facing that which shall imbue our hearts with joy and minds with humbleness.
Blasphemous fraud affecting honey customers
Speaking of God and honey, there is plenty of fraud going on contemporary globalised trade. Much of the honey labeled does not come from the claimed country and the cheapest ones tend to be of “syrup-laced honey from China and other exporters” such as Ukraine, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey. The Financial Times reported recently in an article titled: Beekeepers abuzz over ‘honey laundering’ that the European Commission found “almost half of the honeys surveyed broke EU rules, with ingredients such sugar syrups, colourings and water.” Traceability is also a huge problem in the weak labelling law system not just in the usually rather strict EU. The nutritionally zero value sugar water is incomparable with the enzyme and Vitamin rich nectar of the bees.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEES?
We know they are important, even necessary for life as we know it on this planet, but do you feel admiration, awe, gratitude, or is it fear, worse even ambivalence that affect you when meeting face to face with the sting-ready insect that does more useful work than any other animal does for humanity?
Bees do not just produce honey, propolis and royal gelly for the cosmetic, natural health and food business, their industriousness keeps nature set in its cycles of fertility and the necessary restive dormancy. The life and death cycles necessary for continuity.
How is it so easy for you
To be kind to people he asked
Milk and honey dripped
From my lips as I answered
Cause people have not
Been kind to me
Ever since I was stung by one accidentally when the little me was hiking with my family, I feared these defensive creatures. Encountering the whole truth of wild mother nature was not just a sweet bliss of its ripe produce and transformed alchemy of nectars, it hurt and it swelled. I was afraid. Like a snake rattle, hearing the buzzing sound nearby rises my hair. Around bees I am anxious to jump into any proximate body of water to submerge myself in a self-protecting isolation. Slam the door, the window, get away from this stinging flier! And this reaction came after just one bite. Maybe I need more to fully grasp its harmless pinch, but who volunteers for pain? Only sadists, stoics and psychopaths do.
MY BEE POEM
Collected essence of sunshine
Blossoms nakedly in its obscenity
Of perfumed nectar, an irresistible
Warmth of contact with the divine
Alchemy venerating waste, transformed
Golden pollen digested in honeyed bliss
Tastes as sweet as the lover’s kiss
A rainbow of awe showered humanity
Praising this animal queendom ruled
By fertility fed by royal gelly for longevity
Humm, buzzing, fear-rising
In stinging imagination
Threatened by sound
By fierce protection
Learning from the apian life
Over the recent years I was alerted more urgently to the looming climate disaster, so I kept reading on the irreplaceable value of bees. It does not hurt to study the object of your fear after all. I realised that I must shift my relationship with these magnificent labourers of dedicated love. Curiosity is our greatest teacher and it can introduce highly unexpected knowledge.
Intriguingly, I found an analogy between snake and bee. In the ancient Hindu scriptures the bee humming sound awakens the sleeping Kundalini (energy) serpent. Perhaps, I feared the snake’s awakening inside me each time the fearful buzz approached me. An inner challenge ringing from the outside environment from which we cannot insulate ourselves. This connection with nature can only be cut by lack of awareness (=consciousness) or death, one being most likely synonymous with the other.
Next to their luring sound, the aromatic pheromones released and shared by the ruling queen bee bind her tribe in a potent, organised hierarchical society. Any queen bee takes care of all the procreation, while the rest feeds and protects her prolific egg production. So much on the shoulder of one leader!
Maybe it was the bee that inspired autocratic human systems distinguished by exceptionalism.
Bees’ life cycle, while exemplary in their cooperative activity might seem cruel. The female workers kill the male drones by the end of summer. Perhaps that is also why they tend to be more aggressive in this period also towards humans. September can be dreadful for the male bees and myself. Killing the by now useless (not that I am, but naturally I am a threat with my human largesse and they have a weapon to use, be it deadly when used also for themselves) to preserve the food for long winter is the ultimate example of the survival of the fittest in the animal realm. The intuitive protection of the Mother Queen lying as much as 2,000 eggs a day as the securer of continuity is fascinating. Hence her goddess status amongst her kin’s dependants and the ancient symbolic enthusiasm amongst diverse cultures.
In the Aeneid, Sophocles measures human diligence with bees activity.
Such is their toil, and such their busy pains,
As exercise the bees in flowery plains,
When winter past, and summer scarce begun,
Invites them forth to labor in the sun;
Some lead their youth abroad, while some condense
Their liquid store, and some in cells dispense;
Some at the gate stand ready to receive
The golden burthen, and their friends relieve;
All with united force, combine to drive
The lazy drones from the laborious hive:
With envy stung, they view each other’s deeds;
The fragrant work with diligence proceeds.
“Thrice happy you, whose walls already rise!”
I just cannot escape the bees. My cousin hobbies in bee-keeping after work, a husband’s friend’s start-up raised tens of millions to safeguard honey production, and last year the chronicle of my birth-region, who interviewed me challenged me to come to his friend’s “friendly” beehives and hold some trays of combs oozing with the sticky nectar and hundreds if not thousands (!) bees uninterrupted in their work.
I was invited to face my fear — one against the whole tribe. It turned out that the bee keeper was a woman, a rare sight or perhaps it is because bee keepers tend to their hives rather invisibly. What one often sees when traveling through the European countryside are the coloured wooden boxes by the hedges of a forest, in the proximity of a meadow or flowering bushes.
I would not leave anything to chance, therefore I requested a full protective suit. Most hobbyist bee keepers eventually use only the gloves if any. My cousin said casually that he does not use any and if he gets a few stings, alright that is what they do to protect themselves poor things. His compassion moved me. Looking at a few ancient depictions of a figure about to savour the sweet sticky nectar straight from the hive’s buzzing cave, I learned that human desire never ceases us to tempt to danger. One could be allergic without knowing, so a few stings or even just one can be deadly. The ancient jars, cave paintings and papyrus bore witness to risk for a sweet reward.
Apiarists know their flocks. They are aware when they are angry because of the pheromones that smell somewhat like bananas according to some reports. Literally, they go bananas when upset. They group into an attack. In that scenario I was told by most beekeepers one should remain still, almost as if blending with the surrounding nature, calmly let them pass by.
In my bubble of safety I watched the bees filling the hexagonal wax chambers with honey while holding the tray carefully. I kind of half shut myself down. That is how this first intentional encounter with my fear felt. Yet, unless I move to the Antarctica or in the highest altitude of the Himalayas I have to meet the bees. Even in the polluted urban areas the buzzing pollinators go about their job.
What I realised around this experience was that I must find what we have in common, what interests we share and what we can give to each other, in other words to become friends. If we want to call ourselves evolved like Hippocrates (an avid fan of honey) and not hypocrites, we shall grow above the survival of the fittest law of wild nature and rather judge life based on fairness. Humans feel after all.
WHY they matter to humanity?
Sunshine lovers as the bees are like myself managed to find their way into my circle of friends. If you ever want blueberries, cherries or most vegetables, you cannot do without bees as the wind won’t work here. Only technology could, but that would be costly. The buzzcopters are by far the most important pollinators. There are about 20,000 species of bees in the world. Most of them do not make honey, but each pollinates a specific flower, some even have evolved body shapes more suitable to enter some intricately shaped blossoms.
Extinction of bees would alter ecosystems and human food systems. Fruits would be too expensive to robot-pollinate so without the bees’ assistance, less natural food would be affordably available to nourish the growing global population. While they are resistant to droughts, they are sensitive to cold and large shifts in temperatures. Climate change is disrupting mild climates, fluctuates temperatures in sudden, erratic restlessness. It breaks down regularity of the seasonally shifting qi energy. Their vital role in agriculture as well in the interconnected environment is indisputable.
I read a heartfelt but sad bestselling story of a a Syrian refugee for whom bees were everything in life. It was given to me by my nature-aware dad the last Christmas. They consoled his loss of a beloved only son and his suffering while undergoing a dangerous journey by sea through Greece to England. In The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri recounts problems across cultures and how bees connect our society with another. The author introduced me to the knowledge of some bees’ adaptability. For example the British black bees are more resistant in cooler temperatures, she writes. They keep working under 15 degrees Celsius and when compared to most European bees they are more resistant against viruses.
While I am not attempting to explain bee behaviour and keeping scientifically or practically, I want to illuminate the importance of these buzzing insects to humanity. Beyond producing potentially the first sweetener of our from paradise cast out lives, this supporter of fertility and biodiversity on the only Earth that we know we have, deserves our attention and support. I had to overcome one of my greatest fears for the sake of sustainability, you can do less than that, just use your buzzing consciousness.