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The symbolic use of bees

Throughout history, honeybees have been a common symbol among many different religious traditions across the globe. Here are some fascinating facts I have recently discovered.

According to Buddhist legend, Gautama Buddha during a retreat was fed by both a monkey and an elephant. The monkey brought honeycomb and the elephant fruit and protected him from fierce animals. When Buddha accepted the gift of the honeycomb, the monkey was so happy that he began leaping from tree to tree then suddenly fell to its death. Because of his generosity, however, he was immediately reborn. It is believed this happened on the day of the full moon, the occasion is still celebrated on 10th lunar month during a full moon. It is known as Madhu Purnima or ‘honey full moon’ with gifts of honey and other foods offered as alms.

In Judaism, bees symbolic role can, for example, be seen in the celebration of Rosh Hashana. On the eve of the holiday, it is customary to eat symbolic foods which may include dipping challah (leavened bread) and an apple into honey. This can symbolise the hopes for a happy and healthy new year. In the Jewish Torah ( the five books of Moses and the overall body of Jewish religious teachings) there are many references to bees and honey. In fact, in the Torah, God described Israel as a “good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey”. This description meaning a fertile land, abundant and nourishing. The Midrash– an ancient commentary on the Hebrew scriptures– actually explains that milk symbolizes superior quality, richness and nourishment, while honey represents sweetness.

The Hindu gods were often associated with bees. The gods Vishnu, Krishna and Indra were called Madhava – the nectar born ones and their symbol is the bee. Vishnu is represented as a blue bee upon a Lotus flower. Where Vishnu steps a spring of mead appears and Krishna is depicted with a blue bee on his forehead. There is also a Hindu Bee Goddess Bhrami (meaning bees) who resided in the heart chakra and emitted the buzzing sound of bees. This buzzing humming noise is often imitated in Vedic chants. It is also a belief of many Hindus today that consuming honey will bring strength, health, wisdom, and happiness. Honey is often left on sacred Hindu altars as a gift to God.

In Christianity, the bee has been seen as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s attributes. The honey reflecting his sweet and gentle nature whilst the sting pertaining to justice and the cross. Beekeeping is an ancient Catholic tradition and hives have often been kept on monastery grounds so that honey could be used medicinally, for food and for wax. Only beeswax candles can be used as the Paschal candle ( a large candle blessed and lit on Holy Saturday and placed by the alter until Pentecost) which is a true honour for a little bug. The honeybee is seen as a creature of the utmost devotion, because of how they revere their queen. St. John Chrysostom of the Catholic Church wrote, “The bee is more honoured than other animals, not because she labours, but because she labours for others". The ornate columns in the Altar of Confession at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City feature honeybees around the carved flowers and leaves.

In the Islamic tradition, the Quran's 16th chapter is titled An – Nahl, literally translates to ‘The Bee’ and how Muslims should be more like them. Bees are said to be Allah’s miracles, the way they function and behave is to be held as an example and Muslims are told to learn from these magnificent creatures. This chapter is known to be the revelation of God and it is really interesting to note that the honeybee is always referred to as being female, incredible for a document written so long ago to consider gender! Honey is also described as a source of healing and is also mentioned as one of the foods of Paradise.

So as you can see bees have played a role in religious traditions around the world for centuries> Honey has been sought after by humans since the Stone Age. Bees are essential for the pollination of flowering plants including fruits and vegetables and provide us and the rest of nature with an irreplaceable service. Yet now these magnificent insects are dying out due to monoculture and pesticides. If they disappear we will lose a significant portion of our cultural and religious heritage as well as much of our nutritional base, with catastrophic consequences. We need to act now to save our bees and ultimately ourselves.

Written by Sue Wilkinson

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