Bees are interesting critters.  In the ancient world they were thought to reproduce parthenogenetically.   Therefore, in the early Church, bees were a symbol of virginity and purity.  Because of the honey they produce, they were sometimes associated with eloquence.  Hagiographical accounts of the life of St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) had bees flying in and out of baby Amby’s mouth as he slept.  Bees figure, of course, in the great Easter Vigil hymn the Exsultet. Honey is bacteriostatic.  Though I understand that honey shouldn’t be given infants, children under 1 year of age, it is very good for you.  In ancient Rome it was at times used as money.  There are many biblical references to honey, including the description of the promised land, what John the Baptist ate, and what Samson found in the carcass of the lion.   The patriarch Jacob sent his sons to Egypt with honey as a gift.  Manna tasted like honey.  The prophet Samuel said that in the forest there was so much honey that honeycombs were all over the ground. When the Risen Lord showed Himself to the Apostles and asked for something to eat – to demonstrate that He was not a ghost – they gave Him fish and μελίσσιος, honeycomb.  In the Psalms we say that the Lord’s judgments are sweeter than honey and in the book of Revelation John takes the scroll from the angel and eats it and it was as sweet as honey.

And on a decidedly non-biblical note, who can forget Stephen bringing his glass bee hive with some 60,000 of the reptiles aboard dear old HMS Lively

A reader alerted me to this from New Scientist:

Biblical bee-keepers picked the best bees

07 June 2010 by Shanta Barley

The Bible didn’t dub it "a land flowing with milk and honey" for nothing. Not only are the oldest known beehives in the world in what is now Israel, but bee-keepers of the time selected the best bees for the job.

Ancient Egyptian paintings depict bee-keeping, but hives were not found in the Middle East until 2005 when Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem excavated 30 clay cylinders identical to the hives in the paintings, in the ancient town of Tel Rehov.

"Ancient Egyptian wall paintings depict bee-keepers, but a painting can be a dream," says Mazar’s colleague Guy Bloch. "We have found the first real evidence for bee hives in the ancient Near East." In its heyday, the researchers say, the apiary probably housed up to 200 hives and over 1 million bees. The hives are about 80 centimetres long and 40 cm in diameter. Each one has a hole on one side which would have served as a "bee flap" and a lid on the opposite side to give bee-keepers access to the honeycomb.

The remains of bees were found in two of the hives, but instead of being the Syrian bees, they hailed from what is now Turkey. Importing bees would have been a shrewd business decision: Turkish bees produce up to eight times as much honey as Syrian bees, and are less aggressive.

Cool bees

Turkish bees are used to cool, rainy conditions. "In order to get the bees to thrive in the warm, dry climate of northern Israel, these bee-keepers must have been highly skilled," says Bloch.

In fact, "Jewish settlers in Israel in the 1900s may have unwittingly followed in the footsteps of the ancient bee-keepers of Tel Rehov," says Bloch. When they arrived in Israel, they attempted to farm Syrian bees – but failed and had to resort to importing the less aggressive Turkish strains.

The Bible refers to Israel as "a land flowing with milk and honey." Because no evidence for bee-keeping had been found until now, "honey" was deemed to mean jam. [HAH!] "Our discovery suggests that this aspect of the Bible may need to be reinterpreted," says Bloch.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1003265107

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. basilorat says:

    On a related note.

    It is estimated that most of the honey produced in the world finds its origins now in the famous “Buckfast Bee” bred by Dom Adam Kerle, OSB of Buckfast Abbey, who died only a few years ago. They are also known for their “tonic wine” which is quite popular there.

  2. Jacob says:

    Been out all day with nothing to eat and return home starving?

    Piece of bread +
    copious amounts of honey =
    heaven :D

  3. AnAmericanMother says:


    The Buckfast bee is a hybrid of the old British brown bee and the Italian bee. They may well produce most of the honey in Britain, but I don’t think they are widespread enough to produce most of the world’s honey. My bet would be that the good old reliable Italian bee is producing more honey worldwide than any other strain. They don’t produce as much honey as some of the more aggressive strains, but they do produce a surplus and they are gentle – you can handle them without a veil or gloves, so long as you use plenty of smoke! My grandfather-in-law was a beekeeper from age 10 until his death at 90, and he always worked without gloves and usually without a veil — but he always said, “Smoke ’em, then some ’em again, then smoke ’em some more!”

    I have always kept Italians, except for the occasional hive of native black bees that somebody pawned off on me. They’re mean as snakes, by the way!

    The Buckfast bees are pretty good honey producers but their most aggravating drawback is they stick everything together with huge gobs of propolis (“bee glue”) so you have to screw rather than nail all your frames together. They are a cool weather bee, so they don’t do well in our American South. And they’re a bit aggressive.

  4. AnAmericanMother says:

    Oh, yeah . . .

    The “Biblical scholars” up to their usual idiocy.

    I never heard of a society that made jam but not honey. Where are you going to get the sugar for the jam? never mind the pectin . . . .

    Besides, as shown by Fr. Z’s Egyptian tomb painting, the Egyptians were keeping bees by the 7th c. B.C. . . . and we know there was plenty of contact between the Egyptians and the rest of the Mediterranean . . .

  5. irishgirl says:

    Speaking of the Saints and bees-I think bees are also associated with St. Rita of Cascia, if I’m not mistaken. They swarmed around her after she was born.

  6. Michaelus says:

    Speaking of bees – does anyone know the origin of this gem (quoted by Chesterton as a Suffolk poem w.r.t. something about William Cobbet I think):

    Bees are bees of paradise
    Do the work of Jesus Christ
    Do the work that no man can.
    God made bees and bees make honey,
    God made man and man makes money.
    God man man to plant and reap and sow,
    And God made little boys to scare away the crow.

  7. AJP says:

    Great post! I’ve long been fond of traditional iconography and symbolism that uses animals – there’s something so charming about it.

    The bee is also the symbol of renaissance Rome’s Barberini family, which produced a few popes. If you’re ever in the courtyard of Sant’Ivo in Rome (a hidden gem between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona) you’ll see a large stone relief of a bee above every arch in the loggia. The Barberini built the church and courtyard which was originally home to La Sapienza, Rome’s university.

    Mormons are also fond of bees and beehives in their religious art, although the symbolism they attach to bees is understandably quite different! This is why Utah’s official nickname is the Beehive State.

  8. To be fair, some fruits have a lot of pectin naturally. Quince, for a biblical area example. But yeah, you’d still need some kind of sweetener, particularly for quince.

    Sounds like Biblical beekeepers were good at disposing of their old hives in some thrifty manner. Now that they know to look for them, maybe archeologists can figure out what.

  9. AJP, a Barberini was Pope when Bernini constructed the enormous baldacchino in St. Peter’s, so he worked bees into its detailed motifs.

  10. Supertradmum says:

    Are the “jam” source scholars the same ones who claim that the manna was ant or aphid “poop”? Just wondering….

    poop? Just wondering….

  11. Supertradmum says:

    sorry,using my son’s very sensitive computer as my laptop is broken…did not intend the needless repetition…

  12. Eric says:

    bees were a symbol of virginity and purity

    Isn’t this the reason we use at least 51% beeswax candles for mass?

  13. Stirling says:

    Interesting story.

    As a side note, it is believed that the first stone beehives were discovered in Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland although, oddly, the hives were inaccessible. Here’s the link to the full story: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article7080735.ece

  14. pseudomodo says:

    I’ve chosen the bumblebee as a symbol in my heraldic coat of arms with the motto: “He’s fat, he’s slow, he works alone.”

    Much like myself….

  15. albizzi says:

    Wild bees and their honey are in the culture of middle East countries since millenaries.
    Everybody knows that St John the Baptist fed himself with wild honey and insects
    when he stayed in the desert.
    The Yemen is famous among arab countries for producing very fine and tasteful wild honeys, probably because people claim they have aphrodisiac properties.
    Some varieties are purchased by rich people at crazy prices, up to several thousand USD a pound

  16. James III says:

    Father Z,
    I thought that you might this contribution from poet Phyllis McGinley in her collection, “A Wreath of Christmas Legends”. It is one of my favorites.

    The Canticle of the Bees

    Bees in winter
    Weather keep,
    Rapt, a garden-haunted

    Dream of summer,
    Still as stone,
    Save on Christmas Eve,

    When that honey-havened
    Roused by bells
    From every steeple,

    Wake and sing
    With one accord
    To the Lord.

    “Praise Him”
    Sing the choiring bees,
    “Lord of limes
    And Locust trees,

    “Him Who has
    Dominion over
    Fields of amaranthine

    “By Whose providence
    We fare
    Daily through
    The throbbing air

    “And return
    In drowsy flight
    From the pastures
    Of delight,

    “From the many-petaled
    When the shadows close.”
    So, at least,
    The legend goes.

    Visit them
    When bells arrive,
    Cup your ear
    Against the hive,

    You may hear them
    Singing thus,
    But multitudinous:

    Lord of all
    Things that flutter,
    Fly or crawl,

    “Now Your Star
    Has shown again,
    Bless your swarming Bees,

    Wondering, walk there.
    Do not fear them.
    But remember
    As you near them,
    Only the pure in heart
    Shall hear them.

  17. greg the beachcomber says:

    And by “reinterpret” I mean totally unreinterpret.

  18. New Sister says:

    Did you know honey is the one food that never goes bad? (it might separate, but will last for years without turning rancid)

    My “bee” indulgences: with morning coffee, cinnamon toast w/ butter and spun lavender honey from Provence; at dinner – serving steak with knives from Laguiole (the ones w/ a bee on the handle…not sure why the bee is there); during evening prayer, it’s beeswax candles, which have a delightful scent – if made properly they do not drip or smoke, and cast a warm, amber light upon the wooden crucifix above my altar.

  19. J Kusske says:

    Another bee-hive symbol I recently ran across is the logo for Radford University in SW Virgina. They even named the campus yearbook the Beehive. Since it was founded largely by Scotch-Irish (or Ulster Irish) perhaps it has a connection to the Yeats poem “THe Lake Isle of Innisfree”, with its hive and wanting to “live alone in the bee-loud glade”.

  20. Mrs. O says:

    I didn’t know that about the symbol behind bees..virginity and purity.
    Did you know in the US some bee colonies have collapsed? We are participating in a project to count the bees in the wild(The great sunflower project).
    What a timely post.

  21. AnAmericanMother says:

    Everybody’s speculating about colony collapse.

    I wonder if it isn’t just drought stress combined with the mites.

    We had a horribly cold winter here and it stressed the bees out. One of our hives lost its queen and we couldn’t get a replacement in time for the spring honeyflow. Bah! We’ll be lucky to maintain through the coming winter. Lots of sugar syrup will be boiled up. Sometimes they feed us, and sometimes we feed them . . . . .

    I think I’m going to try requeening with one of the new Russian queens . . . they are supposed to be resistant to the mites.

  22. AnAmericanMother says:

    J Kusske,

    Donn Byrne (I think it was Donn Byrne) had a fit about Yeats introducing the “nine bean rows of suburbanity” into Innisfree.

    I guess bees are o.k. Both Byrne and Kipling observed that bees won’t stay in a house where there’s hating. Kipling even wrote a poem about it:

    Bees! Bees! Hark to your bees!
    ‘Hide from your neighbours as much as you please,
    But all that has happened, to_ us _you must tell,
    Or else we will give you no honey to sell!’_

    A maiden in her glory,
    Upon her wedding-day,
    Must tell her Bees the story,
    Or else they’ll fly away.
    Fly away–die away–
    Dwindle down and leave you!
    But if you don’t deceive your Bees,
    Your Bees will not deceive you.

    Marriage, birth or buryin’,
    News across the seas,
    All you’re sad or merry in,
    You must tell the Bees.
    Tell ’em coming in an’ out,
    Where the Fanners fan,
    ‘Cause the Bees are just about
    As curious as a man!

    Don’t you wait where trees are,
    When the lightnings play,
    Nor don’t you hate where Bees are,
    Or else they’ll pine away.
    Pine away–dwine away–
    Anything to leave you!
    But if you never grieve your Bees,
    Your Bees’ll never grieve you.

    – “The Bee Boy’s Song” from Puck of Pook’s Hill

  23. dmwallace says:

    Father Z: When you mentioned that the disciples offered Our Lord some honeycomb after His resurrection I was a bit perplexed. I hadn’t remembered that! Interestingly, I just took a gander in some various Greek editions and, sure enough, there it is. The RSV and the NAB, the usual English editions I read do not translate honeycomb in Lk 24:42. The DR and KJV do, however. It’s one of those interesting little textual variants.

  24. Ed the Roman says:

    I always vote Yes on Proposition B.

  25. J Kusske says:

    So, the bible scholars not only assumed that “honey” meant “jam”, but also that giving the risen Jesus a piece of honeycomb wasn’t worth mentioning when translating the Gospel of Luke? I think the bees may not be too pleased with this anti-apiarian bias! I can’t wait to see what will be buzzing in along with the restored version of the Exultet (wax “which the mother bee produced to make this precious candle”).

  26. New Sister says:

    and thanks for teaching me that bees are Church symbols of purity and virginity – I’ve decided to wire a little decorative bee inside my friend’s bridal boquet this summer!

  27. AnAmericanMother says:

    New sister,

    Some honeys have a tendency to “sugar out” – i.e. granulate. The worst offenders (like gallberry or clover) seem to granulate within days. You can fix it by standing in barely simmering water for awhile.

    Honey WILL ferment – that’s how you get mead. Raw honey is more likely to ferment than the stuff you buy in the store, because most of the storebought stuff is heated and filtered. If you live in a humid environment or don’t keep your honey in a sealed jar, passing yeasts are likely to get after it. Mead that you make on purpose is pretty good though.

  28. bookworm says:

    How did the ancients get the idea that bees reproduced parthenogenically (by virgin birth)? Had they not discovered the drones yet? Or did they assume the males were just as useless in that department as they were for other tasks (since worker bees are all female)?

  29. AnAmericanMother says:


    They knew about the drones, but didn’t know what they were for. Unless you had very sharp eyes and observed a queen on a mating flight with her drone attendants, you wouldn’t recognize what was going on. They fly a long way and often very high in the air (where mating takes place), so they would be hard to see. Also, it only happens once in a queen’s life (5-7 years) so it doesn’t happen that often.

    And bees do reproduce parthenogenically under abnormal circumstances. When a hive loses its queen and the workers have no newly laid eggs from which to raise a new queen, in the absence of the pheromones from worker larvae some of the adult workers will begin to lay eggs = “laying workers”. Because the eggs aren’t fertilized, though, they will only produce drones – usually undersized drones because they are reared in worker cells. It’s really annoying and hard to fix – most people just tear down the hive and shake the workers off in front of another hive or two, because the laying workers will often kill any new queen you try to introduce.

    On very, very rare occasions, in some strains of bees, a laying worker may produce actual female bees – workers or virgin queens.

  30. Sacristymaiden says:

    Have you ever made mead before? I would love to learn how.

  31. AnAmericanMother says:

    Yes, in fact we have.

    My family made wine in the basement for 40 years – really not bad stuff at all. A friend (dad used to represent the Southern Railroad) shipped us Cabernet grapes from Napa. So we may have a little extra experience.

    We basically made our mead like wine – treating it with sulfites rather than boiling it to sterilize it, then using wine yeast (I think it was either Montrachet or Champagne yeast) and grape salts. Ran it in a large glass carboy with a water bubble filter for the first fermentation, racked it out several times (it ferments very slowly), then bottled. Then it lived in a cool corner of the basement for a long time.

    This stuff was pretty slow to age and extremely dry, but we like it that way. We drank the last bottle just a year or so ago and it was still pretty good – if you like alcoholic honey! The fermentation concentrates the flavor of the honey, so if you start with a strong flavored honey (like, say, buckwheat which is an acquired taste in my opinion) it will be much more so by the time you are done. If you like a sweeter mead, you can add fruit juice and spices (but then what you have is metheglin).

    There are several good books on the market on ‘how to make mead’. It’s really not hard if you’re patient and follow the directions carefully. Keeping everything scrupulously clean and sterile is important or you will get something very nasty in your bottles!

  32. New Sister says:

    AmericanMother – Sacristymaiden – what is mead?

    I know honey separates and even discolors, but I’ve always learned it does not “expire” due to the extremely high sugar content that kills all bacteria – archiologists, I am given to understand, found usable honey in Egyptian tombs! Anyway, I am blessed w/ the ability to get my honey from France (am quite parital to spun lavender honey from Provence, and the stuff my friends harvest at their chateau in Touraine) and you’re right, it does discolor & separate after a few years, yet remains delicious. I’ll try the heating tip — been making a mess in my efforts to stir honey jars back to their original creamy-white texture. Ymmmm =p

  33. New Sister says:

    PS Wiki page on mead explained all – it looks just delightful!!

  34. AnAmericanMother says:

    Lavender honey from Provence . . . oh, my! We have nothing like that around here! Our standard North Georgia wild honey is Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in May and Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum) in July. The Sourwood is a premium honey, very light in color and very delicate flavor. But not lavender!

    When you heat it back up to re-liquify it, be sure to set it in a saucepan of water and turn it on VERY low heat and simmer it very gently. I put a cast iron diffuser between the burner and the pan, and never let the water temperature get over 100 degrees F. It takes longer to do that way, but if you let it get too hot, many of the beneficial compounds in the honey are destroyed.

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