Zinging Around: The Symbolism of Bees

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Why are tangents so appealing? Something about zinging across whatever tasks you’re “Supposed to Be Doing” renders that distraction so delicious. Case-in-point: While I’m digging deeper into my next book about patterns, I find myself helplessly gathering excellent cutting-room-floor material. The symbolism of animals is proving an extremely rich vein, so much so that I’ll write about in this short series.

Take honeycombs and their makers, bees. This remarkably consistent pattern in nature provides plenty of fodder for discussion in my book. Even their own distinctive patterning, the black-and-yellow striped jacket, is interesting.

Bees by Alan Taylor on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1qbTGTs

Bees by Alan Taylor on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1qbTGTs

(Did you know that bees in the Canary Islands are white-and-black-striped, like zebras? Scientists recently tested the long-held theory that predators, once stung by a bee, know not to attack them again from bees’ peculiar coloration. The results were surprising, as BBC reports, and it’s great, not-quite-on-topic stuff.)

UK Bumblebee ID by Robert Goulding on Behance: https://www.behance.net/gallery/1117289/UK-Bumblebee-ID

UK Bumblebee ID by Robert Goulding on Behance

Even less relevant to my book’s premise, but more fascinating, is the symbology of bees themselves. I knew bees connote community, hard work and thrift but other associations caught me unaware. For instance: The Chinese word for bees (feng) sounds like “count,” ergo bees are associated there with professional advancement.

Bees in European lore are ethereal, almost unreally so. According to The Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann, early Christians thought bees didn’t eat; instead they sustained themselves on flower fragrance alone. Mediterraneans held odd ideas about bees, imagining them as unsexed, spontaneously generated from rotting animal corpses without any blood and without the need to breathe.

Read more about color and symbolism in Jude Stewart’s ROY G. BIV.

The “path of bees” was an old Germanic expression for the idea that the air is filled with the souls of the dead. Across Europe dreaming of bees meant death is near; however, if a bee flies into a dead person’s mouth, as the thinking goes, the corpse will spring back to life. (One can only hope that colony collapse disorder will similarly boomerang the bees back into prime health.)

“Busy Bee” Bachelor Thesis by Vanessa Schnurre: http://bit.ly/1d9TP52

“Busy Bee” Bachelor Thesis by Vanessa Schnurre: http://bit.ly/1d9TP52

“Busy Bee” Bachelor Thesis by Vanessa Schnurre.

“Busy Bee” Bachelor Thesis by Vanessa Schnurre: http://bit.ly/1d9TP52

The bee’s combination of honey and stinger, sweetness and pain, connoted the mingled suffering and redemption of Christ. It also recalled the keenly pleasant pain of earthly love. As The Complete Dictionary of Symbolism by Jack Tresidder notes: “Eros was stung by a bee while stealing a honeycomb, only to be told by an unsympathetic Aphrodite that he inflicted far greater wounds himself.”

Bees symbolize reincarnation in more than just Christian or Western contexts. In Hinduism, a blue bee on the forehead represents Krishna; a bee on the lotus, Vishnu; a bee above a triangle, Shiva. Even the Hittites saw the bee as a savior of sorts: In one myth, a bee saved the world from drought by finding the lost son of the weather god.

Watch for the next part of this series, featuring rabbits and hares.


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