This is the month of cicadas in Washington DC, where hordes of them take over the city – they emerge cyclically every seventeen years after hibernation. Morning walks which used to be a treat are now an exercise in wading through dead cicadas on a pavement. Some use the situation to their advantage: an Italian friend recently pan fried them with butter and garlic – reputedly they taste like shrimp. I, for one, am keeping away. And I had been thinking of friendly insect creatures instead. If one has to pollinate, why can’t bees take over our world instead?
I have long been fascinated by bees and their magic world. You see, bees live in their own orderly, disciplined and productive world. We as humans are more reliant on bees than we care to acknowledge. At least a third of the world’s food production depends on bees.
My fondness for bees probably began as a ten-year-old when I acted in a play about the bee kingdom – Claudius the Bee. This was the first time we were exposed to the world of bees beyond animal creatures and that they had voices and opinions. For months, we had to become bees – research how they spoke, lived and dressed up as bees. My own costume was designed by my parents and in the end it provided a bonding exercise for all the fellow bees in my otherwise dysfunctional Year 5 class. In retrospect, that was probably the moment that I developed a life-long affection for bees as mythical magical creatures.
I am not alone in considering bees magical. Throughout history, beyond their practical value, bees have had great religious, spiritual, and mythological significance. In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and in shamanistic cultures in Africa and South America, bees were seen as messengers of the spirits, and their sweet honey was thought to have the divine power to heal and bestow wisdom. They were creatures that formed the link from this world to the afterworld.
Their significance varies across cultures. The San people in the African Kalahari desert would tell stories about a bee that carried a mantis across a river. The exhausted bee left the mantis on a floating flower but planted a seed in the mantis’s body before it died. The seed grew to become the first human. In Egypt, the sun god Ra produced tears which became bees as they landed on the hot desert sands. Egyptian pharaohs used the honey bee as a royal symbol. The Greeks believed that a baby whose lips were touched by a bee would become a great poet or speaker. If a bee flies into your house, it means that someone is coming to visit. If you kill the bee, the visitor will bring you bad news.
In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and in shamanistic cultures in Africa and South America, bees were seen as messengers of the spirits, and their sweet honey was thought to have the divine power to heal and bestow wisdom
There are about 20,000 species of bees globally. One can distinguish between the wild and solitary or domestic honeybee. The domestic honeybee is the one that makes the honey and the wild solitary bee pollinates – leading a very different life. Species such as honey bees and bumble bees are, like our own culture, tremendously social. Bee colonies are comprised of three castes: the queen bee, infertile female worker bees and male drones. On average they have short industrious lifespans, constantly involved in their own business. According to the National Honey Board, a bee may visit more than two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just one pound of honey. There is an important economic element to beekeeping. Honeybees alone enable an estimated $20 billion in U.S. crop production, according to the American Beekeeping Federation; pollinators support well over $200 billion in food production worldwide.
More recently, a shoot for the National Geographic has propelled the honey bee to mainstream media. Who could be a better queen bee than Angelina Jolie, who was recently named Fairy Godmother at Women for Bees, a program launched by UNESCO in tandem with French cosmetics house Guerlain. The idea is to use funds to train and support 50 women beekeeper-entrepreneurs in 25 UNESCO-designated biosphere reserves around the world. The aim is for women to build 2,500 native beehives by 2025 to safeguard 125 million bees. Women from Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, France, Russia, Rwanda and Slovenia will be trained this year, with others from Peru, Indonesia and more joining in 2022. The idea is to highlight and support the diversity of local beekeeping and share the know-how of different cultures. In China, for example, locals use log hives made of fallen trees sealed with cow dung to protect bees in winter. Meanwhile in Cambodia, beekeepers raise colonies on inclined branches that make it easy to harvest honey without destroying a colony. Locally produced honey will provide immunity, help curb disease and improve the local ecosystems.
There is something wonderfully poetic about this programme: combining cultural conservation, climate change and empowering women – who would be trained to protect the industriousness of bees. Albert Einstein had once predicted that if bees disappear from this world, then we would only have four years left to live. I prefer to think of it in mythology that without the magic powers of bees, we would be left in a world without order, activity, and industriousness… and happily Angelina Jolie probably agrees with me.