Myths, Symbolism & Folklore Tales of the Bee

This famous quote by Karl Von Frisch, "The bee's life is like a magic well, the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water..." truly captures the fascination and bee-witching nature of bees. 

There is not a time nor place on earth where the bee has not embedded itself within the imagination and symbolism of humankind.  From ancient Egypt through to the Middle Ages, to inclusion in religious scriptures and traditional folklore customs, the humble bee has become renowned as one of earth's most honoured creatures.

Here we share 9 myths, symbolic & folklore tales of bees: 

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs of Honey Bees

 1.  In ancient Egypt, the bee was the emblem of lower Egypt; a symbol of the giver of life, birth, death and resurrection.  Ra was the sun God and Egypt's most important deity.  It was believed the tears of Ra upon falling from the sky and touching the desert sand transformed into working bees (honey bees).

The ancient Egyptians were the first to make artificial hives to harvest honey.  Many hieroglyphic artworks depict the worshipping of Ra alongside the honey bee paying tribute to the giver of this "liquid gold".

2.  In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, bees were associated with the underworld besides fertility.  Believed to be a divine creature that could navigate between two realms - either the spheres of the dead and the living or that of humans and the Gods, bees were viewed as communicators carrying the messages from the heavens or the underworld to humans.  It was also believed that if a baby's lips were touched by a bee, he/she would become a great poet or orator.

3.  In Africa, the Kalahari San people tell the folklore tale of how the first human being came into existence.  According to the tale, a bee was carrying a mantis across the turbulent river but became exhausted before reaching the other side.  Placing the mantis upon a floating flower the bee planted a seed in the mantis' body before drowning.  When the sun came up and the mantis awoke, the seed had grown to become the first human being.    

Madhu Purnima Honey Full Moon Festival

4.  The Madhu Purnima (Honey Full Moon Festival) is a Buddhist festival celebrated in many parts of South and Southeast Asia; observed on the full moon of the 10th lunar month.  According to legend, during his retreat at Parileyya forest, a monkey brought honeycomb for Buddha to eat, while an elephant brought fruit. 

On accepting the gift of the honeycomb, the monkey became over jubilant, leaping from tree to tree and fell to his death.  Because of his generous gift to Buddha, the monkey was immediately reborn in the heavenly realm of Tavatimsa. 

Since it is believed this event took place on the day of the full moon, the occasion has come to be commemorated as the Madhu Purnima.  On this joyous day celebrating unity and charity, all Buddhists and participators observe the occasion by bringing gifts of honey and fruit to shrines and monasteries.  

Telling the bees painting

5.  The "Telling the Bees" is a 19th century European folklore custom believed to have originated from Celtic mythology.  The custom involves the act of telling the bees when important events have taken place in the beekeeper's household, such as a birth, death or marriage.  It is believed failing to tell the bees of such events would result in loss, with the bees either abandoning the hive, stopping production of honey or simply dying. 

When the beekeeper has died, the bees have to be "put into mourning" - this would often be done by a family member who would gently knock on the hive and whisper or softly sing to the bees that their keeper has died.  By doing this, the bees would then accept the new beekeeper. 

6.  In the Holy Qur'an, the Islamic book for Muslims, the 16th Surah (chapter) entitled An-Nahl literally translates as "The Bee".  The surah guides Muslims on how the life and function of the honey bee is an example by which they should emulate to live a good life.  Bees are referred to as Allah's little miracles, an industrious, clean living, community focussed creature producing a food that has beneficial healing properties and said to be the food of paradise.  It is interesting to note, that while modern science has only recently learned that only female honey bees produce honey, the Qur'an, written over 1,400 years ago, correctly identified that fact.  

7.  In Native American mythology, the bee is often referenced in cautionary tales to warn people to not disrespect nature.  Bees are portrayed as mighty fierce warriors.  Although small in size, they are perfectly capable of defending themselves against larger enemies - only a fool would underestimate their powerful nature.  Also associated with fertility, in some tribes, couples who were having difficulty in conceiving a child would be gifted pots of honey. 

8.  The high regard held of bees through-out history in all cultures has resulted in some strange superstitions.  Commonly, these superstitions revolve around bees being bringers of good luck and wealth should one land on you or visit the home, death or punishment if one kills a visiting bee.  It was once believed that a young maiden's virginity and purity could only be proven if she was able to walk through a swarm of bees without being stung.

Manchester Honey Bee Golden Statue

9.  In the 19th century, the city of Manchester (UK) became the centre of the Industrial Revolution - an era of great advancement in technology and industry.  Due to its leading move into new forms of mass production, such as factories (referred to as beehives), where thousands of Mancunians worked like busy bees to create the world's first industrial city, the worker bee was adopted as a symbol of the city in 1842. 

Following the May 2017 terrorist attack in the city, beyond just representing the hard working nature of its people, the bee emblem took on a greater meaning, today also viewed as a symbol of unity, hope & peace. 

Next blogWhat Happens to Bees in Autumn & Winter?