Humans have been harvesting honey from Honeybees since the dawn of our evolution (Chimpanzees poke sticks in nests and collect what they can before being driven off by the angry bees!) and bees have been revered in all forms of religion across the world from the very beginning of civilisation.
Many religions including the ancient Egyptians revered honeybees as messengers from the gods, who called them “Tears of Ra’, and even used the bee as a symbol to represent Lower Egypt in the Royal hieroglyph as shown below.
Royal Cartouche from Ancient Egypt
Known elsewhere in the ancient world as "The Land of the Bee", Egypt exported huge quantities of honey from the south of the country in big clay jars as well as large volumes of beeswax for cosmetics, to make moulds for metalworkers and as clean-burning candles for the rich.
There are documents indicating that almost 14,000 tons of honey was transported annually along the Nile on boats. The production and exporting of honey and other bee products was tightly controlled by the state, with many wonderful titles of government officials including ‘Sealer of the Honey’, ‘Divine Sealer’, ‘Overseer of all Beekeepers’ and ‘Chief Beekeeper’.
Egyptian honey was exported all over the ancient world including Greece. Here, legend has it Melissa was one of three winged nymphs who discovered and then taught man the use of honey and also delivered the power of prophecy from signs in nature to humans.
Ancient Greek Bee Goddess symbols
Closer to home, in Celtic mythology, Honeybees were regarded as messengers between our world and the spirit realm and were associated with wisdom garnered from the otherworld. This folklore persisted through to Christian times, with folk tales in Scotland and England stating that bees would hum loudly at midnight on Christmas Day for the Savior’s birth. When the new Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752, 11 days were removed and the fact that the bees could not be heard humming on the new Christmas Day was taken as a sign of God's displeasure at the changes!
For centuries, beekeepers across Europe have kept up this incredibly ancient tradition of honeybees being messengers through "telling the bees".
Draping the beehives with black crepe on the death of the beekeeper
This is where the beekeeper treated their bees as extended members of their own family and kept informed of any family news in the household. Beekeepers also needed to talk to the bees in calm voices and never use harsh words for fear of upsetting the bees. Marriages, new births and especially deaths were marked by decorating the hive and telling the bees what had happened.
The death of the beekeeper required the new beekeeper to introduce themselves formally as their new owner and ask for their acceptance as their new master/mistress. It was said that not doing this would encourage the bees to desert the hive or the colony to stop producing honey or even die and is a tradition that we encourage new beekeepers to continue today. I'm always talking to my bees and it's a great stress reliever knowing that they will keep my secrets and never talk back!
It’s comforting to know that the very ancient tradition of honeybees acting as messengers is still preserved today, even in a small way...