Just like they do today, honey bees have fascinated humans for thousands of years. From their flight to their hive development, their nursing methods to their communication abilities, honey bees are a true phenomenon of the natural world. But before humans could explain their conduct through science, we needed to find answers some other way. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that ancient people from all around the world used their mythologies to explain the honey bee’s distinct behavior. Some of the most common honey bee myths and folktales can be found in entirely disparate mythologies, stretching from the Greeks to the Celts.
Honey Bees in Greek Mythology
Bees and their honey play an essential role in ancient Greek myths and religious traditions. One Greek story tells of the birth of Zeus, King of the Gods. After Zeus was born, his father the Titan Kronos, believing his son was destined to overthrow him, wanted him dead. But for his own protection Zeus’ mother hid him in a secret cave on Mount Dicte. The cave was full of sacred bees that fed honey to the infant. Once Zeus was grown up, he dethroned Kronos and awarded the bees for their assistance by making them bright gold and strong enough to resist cold and winds.
Though Zeus’ origin story may be the most prominent example, honey bees and their honey appear all over ancient Greek mythology. Melissa, a nymph, was said to be the first to find honeycomb honey, which she mixed with water and served as a beverage.
The Muses, goddesses of art and poetry, were connected to bees, which were called “birds of the Muses.” It was believed that honey bees dropped honey onto humans’ lips to give them artistic and oratory abilities.
Honey Bees in Egyptian Mythology
But ancient Greece was not the only place where bee symbology captured the public imagination. Egypt also saw a great deal of bee worship, so much so that ancient pharaohs used the honey bee as the royal symbol between 3000 B.C. and 350 B.C. In Egyptian society, the bee symbolized the giver of life, birth, death, and resurrection.
In ancient Egypt, it was believed that bees were created using the tears of Ra, the sun god. A study into the most common honey bee myths and folktales shows that Egyptians thought the bees delivered messages from the heavens, dropping from Ra’s face and carrying out their bidding on Earth.
Honey also played a sacred role in guiding the dead to the afterlife. Common gifts for the Egyptian dead included bees, bee hives, and bee relics.
Honey Bees in Celtic Mythology
Honey bees in Celtic mythology are thought to have immense wisdom. Much like the Egyptians, Celts believed honey bees traveled between worlds, bringing back with them messages from the gods. In the western isles of Scotland, bees were said to embody the ancient knowledge of the druids. The Highlanders thought that a person’s soul took the form of a bee during sleep or while in a trance.
A popular Celtic tradition says that bees should be treated like members of the family. Whenever a significant event took place, like a birth or death, a family needed to report these occurrences back to the bees. Superstition held that to protect against further deaths, the message of someone’s passing needed to be delivered before their funeral. The messenger also had to tie a black ribbon around a piece of wood and place it in the hole at the top of the hive.
African Bee Myth
The myths held by the Bushmen of the Kalahari show that the bee played a vital role in man's creation. According to legend, Mantis asked Bee to help him cross a great, flooded river so he could be with his family. Being a kindly creature, Bee took Mantis on her back and flew over the water, but she was beaten by the harsh winds. She very nearly fell into the waves when she found a magnificent flower flowing in the stream. She landed Mantis on the flower for safety, fell beside the insect, and then died from exhaustion. When the sun came up, curled up on the flower was the first human being.
Bees in Witchcraft
Bees have long been associated with magic and witchcraft. One witch from Lincolnshire, England, is believed to have had a bee as her familiar, which is an animal with supernatural abilities. Familiars help guide and protect witches as they develop their powers. Other bee-related witchcraft stories include a Scottish witch who allegedly poisoned a child while taking the form of a bee, and a Nova Scotia male witch who was accused of killing a cow with a white bee.
Dumbledore, the school headmaster from the popular young-adult book series Harry Potter, is named after an archaic English word related to bees. Author J.K. Rowling said she landed on the name because while she was writing, she imagined the headmaster “wandering around the castle humming to himself.” This image made her think of bees, which eventually led her to the distinct name now known by millions of fans worldwide.
Common Honey Bee Superstitions
Always an area of study for creative minds, honey bees have found their way into several superstitions that still last to this day. For instance, if a bee flies into your house, it means that someone will visit you; but make sure you keep that bee safe, because if you kill it, the expected visitor will bring you bad news. Similarly, it is said that if a bee lands on your hand, you will receive money soon.
Honey bees remain a mysterious animal. The more humans study these bizarre creatures, the more we grow to understand their complex and sophisticated way of thinking, working, and living together. But before we could run any scientific tests, our search for answers inspired us to create stories and myths.
As a result, without realizing it, cultures from every corner of the world have contributed to an ever-expanding collection of myths and folktales centered around the honey bee. Though people living through the perspective of the modern mind may find it ridiculous that whole civilizations ever believed these stories, people had no other way to conceive of the wider world at the time of their inception.