There are many legends from many countries associated with bees - far too many to
be covered in any detail. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is rich in quotations.
“A land flowing with milk and honey ... “ (Exodus)
“Go to the ant thou sluggard. Go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is. What
a noble work she produces, whose labour kings and private men use for their health!
She is desired and honoured by all, and though weak in strength, yet since she values
wisdom she prevails.” (Proverbs)
Samson’s wedding feast riddle concerned bees that had made a nest in the ribcage
of a lion: “ ... out of the strong came forth sweetness.” A well-known brand of golden
syrup has an illustration of this on the container!
Christian tradition contains numerous legends involving bees. According to legend,
the bee was blessed on leaving the Garden of Eden with the title “the handmaid of
the Lord”. In another story, Christ made bees and the Devil, trying to compete, made
wasps. In a French legend, the drops of water falling from the hands of Christ, washing
in the River Jordan, became bees - Christ ordered them to stay and work for mankind.
A Breton legend tells of the tears of the crucified Christ turning into bees and
flying away to bring sweetness into the world. A Polish story tells how Jesus took
the maggots from a wound in St. Paul’s head, put them in a tree and
they became bees.
The Christian Church has strong links with bees. Monasteries kept bees to provide
honey for sweetening and mead made from fermented honey - wax was in great demand
for candles. Honey and mead were used to make herbal remedies more palatable! Brother
Adam of Buckfast Abbey is well-known today.
The saints are well represented. St. Gregory is responsible for opening the flowers
on 12th March - a few weeks later on 21st March, St. Benedict summons the bees to
search for nectar. St. Ambrose, 4th Bishop of Milan, is the patron saint of beekeepers.
In the Ukraine, the patron saint of beekeepers is St. Sossima, who brought bees from
Egypt. According to legend, St. Bartholomew was martyred by being flayed alive and
because of this fate he became the patron saint of tanners. In many parts of Britain,
the apostle was also patron saint of beekeepers, probably because his feast day,
24th August, coincided with the gathering of the honey crop. Indeed, until the 1950s,
the village of Gulval in Cornwall celebrated St. Bartholomew’s Day with a ceremony
for Blessing the Mead, while the annual St. Bartholomew’s Fair in London was famous
for its honey-coated apples. St. Dominic started beekeeping in Wales and, when he
returned to Ireland, gave his hives to St. David - the bees followed him to Ireland!
Another Irish saint St. Gobnat changed a colony of bees into an army to drive away
a local marauding chieftain.
Bees were believed to be the souls of the dead returning to earth or on their way
to the next world. This probably led to the widespread custom of “telling the bees”
when the owner died. If the bees were not asked to stay with their new master or
mistress, it was believed that they would die or abscond.
“Childhood, people say, is the time when nobody dies. Something went from mine the
day I saw Uncle Sam at the hives and heard him say, ‘Bees, your master’s dead. I
am your master now’. With that he knocked on each hive, and from within came a stir
and commotion. ‘They know’, said my uncle, and we went indoors to send for the relations
and find some strips of mourning for the hives.” (Bees are People by Ada Jackson
- The Countryman - Autumn 1967)
Less commonly, other family events were told to the bees:
Marriage, birth or burying,
News across the seas,
All your sad or merrying
You must tell the bees.
In case it be thought that the only references to bees are Christian, one quote from
the Koran must represent the many legends, stories, folklore and poetry showing the
importance of bees in the history of the world:
“Eat honey, my son, for it is good, not only to eat but against all kinds of illness.”
And finally - how bees came by their stings:
It happened a long time ago when the bees became frustrated by the way bears, squirrels
and birds kept helping themselves to their honey. At that time the bees were not
equipped with stings at all and so had no means of protecting themselves. All they
could do was to hide their honey in the hollows of trees and in the clefts of rocks,
which didn’t do much good because time and time again their stores were discovered
with the result that many colonies died of starvation during the winter. In the end,
they got so desperate that they decided to put the problem to Wakonda, the Great
Spirit. He promised to give the matter some thought and told them to return at a
later date. Wakonda had the reputation of never failing to meet a challenge so the
bees were certain their troubles would soon be over. Indeed, they
couldn’t keep the news to themselves and dashed off to inform their cousins the wasps
and hornets. Consequently, when the date for reporting back to Wakonda arrived, the
wasps and hornets went along as well. Wakonda told the bees that he was a great admirer
of their industry and had decided to fix them up with stings. And because he felt
in a generous mood, he offered the wasps and hornets the same equipment!