Mankind has had a long history with bees, and presumably with wasps as well. There is archaeological evidence dating back at least ten thousand years that early humans gathered honey-combs for the sweet treasure it contained. There is even a possibility that Neanderthals may have practiced a primitive form of bee-keeping, and it is well-known among primatologists that non-human primates avidly seek out and consume honey, so there is no reason to believe that we are any different. We have probably been pursuing the “sweet life” since the dawn of time.
In fact, linguists have theorized that honey, and bees, played a prominent role in the lives of early Indo-Europeans because the words for bees, honey, beeswax, bears (who also competed with humans for honey) and mead – the earliest fermented alcoholic beverage was derived from honey, are similar in languages in places as widely dispersed as China, Syria, and today in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, French, Gaelic and Icelandic.
To clarify, the bee is a wasp, only gentler, and both have had a long relationship with humankind as friend and foe. The earliest recorded death from a wasp sting was that of the Egyptian pharaoh, Menes, more than 2,000 years BC. Back then, bees were the symbol of the soul, and their honey was placed in tombs as sacred offerings to the dead. The hornet found itself featured on the imperial crest of the Pharaohs. Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks called the bee ‘Melitta’, meaning ‘Goddess Honey Mother’. Because the bee appears to die in the winter and return in the spring – they actually hibernate in the hive – it also became the symbol of death and rebirth.
There are many historical accounts of bees and wasps being employed as ammunition in warfare. The ancient Mayans threw hives of wasps and yellow jackets at attacking tribes, as did the Romans and Greeks, who even catapulted them onto enemy ships. There are references in the Bible to swarms of wasps and hornets being used in divine retribution! Then there’s the old Irish tale of a woman, around 500 AD, who used them against cattle thieves. While their hives were treated as weapons, it was the honey from the bee that was used in the healing and treatment of the wounded.
Early beliefs claimed bees were heaven-sent. Because of their ability to find their way home over great distances, the bee came to represent the soul. It stood for sexuality and chastity, as well as fertility and care, and there are many stories of small children being protected by bees. Killing a bee was even believed to bring bad luck. In Ireland, honey-wine was thought to be the drink of immortality, and consequently bees were protected by law. In England, however, an old superstition encouraged people to kill the first wasp of the season. It protected you from your enemies, for that month, at least.
It’s no surprise that the bee has been held up as a symbol of social order, diligence and cleanliness. We’ve all seen how they work incessantly among the flowers, pollinating and gathering honey. For many, the bee became the symbol of good, and because of its untiring work, Christians adopted it as the symbol of Hope. In France, it was recognized as the regal symbol. Napoleon had golden bees sewn into his coronation robe, and it came to symbolize family and government. The tarantula hawk wasp has been adopted as the official insect of New Mexico. It wins the wing-span award, reaching up to 5 inches (12 cm).
The bee has appeared on the coinage of ancient civilizations, and the wasp image was carved into the tiles of houses, perhaps because its sting was believed to alleviate painful joints. Today, the bee is a great favourite in contemporary design, popular in jewelry and textiles all over the world.
Get inspired by some really great images and tattoos in our Bee Tattoo Gallery