Bees and their hives are found in religious imagery and royal regalia across multiple cultures and on all major continents.
Honey and pollen are highly regarded in traditional folk medicine and religious observances. And even some cultural creation stories place the bee at the heart of humanity and human existence.
Today, we want to take a closer look at how bees have influenced cultural beliefs, become gods themselves and allowed our imaginations to wander wildly.
So let’s get started with some of the most popular mythologies and fables.
The San People of the Kalahari Desert
In the creation story of the Kalahari Desert’s San people, a lone bee carries a mantis across a wide river. Halfway across, the exhausted bee leaves the mantis on a floating flower and then dies…
But not before planting a seed in the mantis’s body.
And this seed became the first human!
The San people are not alone with the incorporation of bees into cultural myths and legends of how man got here.
From the ancient Greeks to Egyptian mythology and Mayan deities. Bees play pivotal roles in the belief systems and folktales of times gone by.
The Baganda people of Uganda
In Uganda, the Baganda people have the legend of “Kintu”. Kintu was the first man on earth and lived alone with his cow. Kintu wanted a wife, so he spoke to Ggulu. Ggulu was not earth dwelling, he lived in heaven. He asked to marry Nambi, Ggulu’s daughter,.
So Ggulu gave Kintu five tests, all of which he had to pass to prove himself worthy of marrying Nambi.
Kintu breezed through the first four tests.
But for the fifth test, Kintu was faced with the impossible task of picking Ggulu’s own cow from an almost endless herd.
Nambi came to Kintu’s rescue by transforming herself into a bee, directing Kintu to pick the cow whose horn she landed on.
Bees in Ancient Greek mythology
In Ancient Greek mythology, bees were the emblem of Potnia. Potnia was a Minoan-Mycenaean “Mistress” referred to as “The Pure Mother Bee”.
Her priestesses went by the name of ‘Melissa’ which means ‘bee’.
In Ancient Greece, the priestesses of the goddesses Artemis and Demeter were called “bees“. Symbols of which existed in tomb decorations.
Mycenaean tholos tombs were shaped as beehives. And the Delphic priestess is often referred to as a bee.
Then we have the Greek god Apollo. Apollo is said to have acknowledged that his gift of prophecy came to him from three bee maidens.
Why are bees common in Mythology?
What was it about bees that this universal association to the sacred and divine was bestowed upon them? What had mankind elevating them and attaching them to sacred activities for millennia?
The idea of a mystical or divine quality attributed to bees isn’t confined to just religion and mythology.
Until the 17th century, many people (including beekeepers) thought that bees reproduce spontaneously and without the aid of sexual reproduction.
It was only in the 1660s, when Jam Swammerdam examined a queen bee through a microscope that female sex organs we found and the myth was dispelled.
It became clear that bees and other insects reproduce by laying eggs… and not by “magic.” And let’s not forget, magic was believed to be something very real back in those days. The thought of witches, goblins and sprites terrified villagers half to death… while others were killed for being them.
Bee traits that fables were built on
Right, back to the bees. Even though bees do not reproduce through autogenesis (spontaneous generation). They do exhibit several fabled mythical traits, which have led many cultures to accord them near-deity status, holding them in such awe and reverence.
This is particularly true of social bees; those bee species that live in colonies, like the European honey bee and its Asian counterpart.
Social bees are organised, hardworking, and intelligent. They labour diligently all summer long to secure adequate food for the winter. Social bees are clean and detail-oriented, ordering their lives around the queen bee who is the numero uno, the first citizen of the hive.
Not all bees are social though. In fact, most bees are solitary bees. There are marked differences between social and solitary bees. For instance, solitary bees, as their name implies, do not live in hives or work together to support a queen.
So, what is it about honey bees that’s had the world bending on the knee for years?
Who the heck really knows? Not us, that’s for sure.
But what we do know is that bees are humankind’s tiniest best friends.
Their pollination ensures that we have a variety of food crops and that our environment is healthy. And as a bonus, some of the most fantastical and inspiring myths and legends were built around them.