Crixeo: The Honey Bee in Art & History
Humans learned to work with honey bees in ancient times, Now our destinies are intertwined
In the mid-1990s, a zoology professor at Oregon State University made an amazing discovery while visiting a mine in northern Myanmar. As if from a scene in Jurassic Park, he held a piece of amber up to the light and discovered, encased within the fossilized tree resin and semiprecious stone, a humble bee. Later estimated to be 100 million years old, the insect was a fraction of the size of today’s worker bees and was believed to be from an early branch of their evolutionary tree. It was also 40 million years older than any bee previously discovered.
Considered one of the oldest forms of life, wild bees were identified early on by humans as a source for honey. In some cases, humans sought hallucinogenic honey specifically. A cave painting depicting a honey hunter at Bicrop in Spain is estimated to be 15,000 years old.
Ancient Egyptians were writing about their relationship with bees as early as 3000 BCE. They believed honey bees were sacred gifts from the sun god Re, formed by his tears to produce liquid sunlight, which they prized for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Beeswax was also valued for producing candles without ash, as well as cosmetics and embalming materials.
According to Gene Kritsky, author of The Tears of Re, the ancient Egyptians valued honey’s antibacterial properties, using it to heal cuts and burns, while making other medicines a little sweeter. It was a substance enjoyed by the royal court and higher classes more so than the lower ones; however, beekeeping was such an important activity that it was organized by the state. As a beekeeper himself, Kritsky appreciates this ancient occupation, mostly because of the kinship that exists between humans and bees — one that seems to have spread across the globe as quickly as human life did.
In ancient China, royal families enjoyed the delicacies of honey and bee larvae as early as 770 BCE, during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. Later dynasties, however, expanded their use of honey to cure indigestion, bind medicines, strengthen the organs, relieve pain and clear away toxins.
As the demand for honey grew across various civilizations, so did the need to domesticate these insects. It was through this collaborative relationship that we learned exactly how bees operated to produce healing, nutritious honey — a natural transformation of the sun’s rays into golden food that humans could eat.
To begin this process, older female worker bees must take on the perilous journey from their hive to collect pollen and nectar. A single pound of honey requires these bees to make around 25,000 trips to gather supplies from over two million flowers during the spring and summer months. Their wings flutter 230 times per second, and they carry over half their body weight in raw materials at 15 miles per hour.
Incidentally, this behavior also helps the plants themselves by spreading their genetic material across a wide range of flowers, effectively putting evolution into action. In fact, one-third of all food crops we consume rely on bees for pollination. Moreover, the bees communicate with plants by sensing their electric fields, instinctively knowing whether a plant is running low on nectar or has already been visited by another bee. They gather all this intelligence, then deliver it to other forager bees as soon as they return to the hive with their signature waggle dance. Yet foragers are also the oldest bees in the colony without much longer to live, so their numbers must constantly be replenished, especially since one worker bee can produce only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in their six-week lifespan.
Within the hive lives the queen bee — a normal larva that is fed only royal honey, as opposed to bee bread, which everyone else eats. The purpose of the queen is not to rule over her peers but to create more of them. She leaves the hive only once to breed, and otherwise lives in complete darkness within the hive for her three-to-five-year lifespan. The drone bees, or males, do very little work and don’t even have stingers. They live only for the virgin flight of the queen, during which they breed with her, only to immediately die.
The queen collects all the sperm she can store from 10 to 15 drones, then returns to her hive where she lays about 2,000 eggs per day, actively choosing whether to fertilize those eggs based on the needs of the colony. For instance, if she fertilizes an egg with sperm, it produces a female worker bee or potential queen. If she chooses not to fertilize the egg, she creates a male bee with her DNA alone. And over the course of her life, she may lay over one million eggs.
This system aligned the bee with Greek mythology’s Aphrodite. A golden honeycomb represented the goddess of love and creativity. It was believed that the souls of Aphrodite’s priestesses lived on through the bodies of bees, causing the insect to become closely associated with fertility and earthly sexual pleasures. In addition, honey itself became known as an aphrodisiac.
While the queen bee does the ongoing work of populating the hive, her every need is taken care of by her fellow female bees, who also tend to the nursery, feeding larvae either bee bread or that elusive royal honey required to create a new queen when the old one has either died or fled the hive.
As for storing said honey, those same female worker bees hook onto one another, entering an almost meditative state, while they secrete digested honey into malleable wax that can be shaped by their mouths. These bees must consume roughly six to eight pounds of honey just to produce one pound of wax, but their ingenious design of hexagonal combs enables them to store four pounds of honey in a mere one and one-half ounces of wax.
Though roughly 20,000 to 60,000 bees populate one hive, the colony’s sole purpose during the warm months is to gather enough honey to get through the winter — at least 60 pounds, in fact. If their honey reserves are too low, the female bees will quickly kick the males out of their nest, forcing them to die in the cold. Still, the hive has become associated with industry and mutual cooperation, as there is no true hierarchy within the bee’s society. Instead, everything done is for the sake of the colony as a whole, even if it’s to die by mating. In turn, female bees perform several roles throughout their short lives, from bathing the queen to tending to the young, guarding the hive and keeping it clean.
It’s for these reasons and more that the honey bee has become a symbol of wealth, abundance, wisdom, obedience and work ethic. And, since honey itself never expires, the bee is associated with immortality.
Virgil saw the hive as the perfect social model, Napoleon prized the bee for its link to ancient Merovingian kings and the meritocracy he wished to build, and ancient philosophers viewed the honeycomb as the manifestation of divine harmony in nature.
But what of modern times? For thousands of years, bees have helped humans heal their wounds, get drunk on mead, get high on hallucinogenic honey, create candles for light, sweeten our food and create abundance through agriculture. Bees are the only insects that actively produce food that humans consume, and honey contains all the vitamins, enzymes and antioxidants necessary to sustain life. The honey bee was here before us, but can it survive us?
As it turns out, domesticated bees make up two-thirds of the entire bee population, with an estimated 10% die-off during the winter months (when the males get the boot). But starting in 2006, beekeepers began to experience drastic die-off rates, ranging from 30-80% of hives, and not just in the winter but year-round. Many of the bees simply vanished, unable to navigate their way back home. The cause was a bee-killing pesticide known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics.” Often used by big agriculture, as well as big plant suppliers and home improvement outlets, this chemical seeps into the plant’s vascular system, making the leaves, nectar and pollen poisonous to insects — including bees. The dangers extend to lawn fertilizers as well, causing hazardous chemicals to remain in the soil for years.
In the U.S., the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) is meant to protect bees from these harmful chemicals, but unfortunately it has been compromised by “standard procedure.” Basically, the companies producing the bee-killing chemicals are responsible for regulating themselves by running internal tests and turning results in to the EPA for approval, which is frequently granted.
So what can you do to help the bees right now, other than writing to your representatives? You can plant native wildflowers, flowering shrubs or fruit trees, ensuring they have not been chemically treated. You can also grow blueberries or tomatoes, let dandelions live, add hanging baskets of flowers to your porch, and keep part of your yard unmowed and untidy for the benefit of wildlife.
And if you’d like to provide your visiting bees with a refreshing drink during their busy summer months, leave a water dish filled with pebbles outside for them to enjoy. Also, be sure to support local organic farms by either ordering their products online or visiting the local farmers’ market. The little bit of effort is worth it.
After all, honey bees have been around for millions of years. Do we really want to be the generation that kills them?