In mythology, the bee, found in Indian, ancient Near East and Aegean cultures, was believed to be the sacred insect that bridged the natural world to the underworld.
The bee was an emblem of Potnia, the Minoan-Mycenaean “Mistress”, also referred to as “The Pure Mother Bee”.Her priestesses received the name of “Melissa” (“bee”).
In addition, priestesses worshipping Artemis and Demeter were called “bees”. Appearing in tomb decorations, Mycenaean tholos tombs were shaped as beehives.
The Delphic priestess is often referred to as a bee, and Pindar notes that she remained “the Delphic bee” long after Apollo had usurped the ancient oracle and shrine. ”
The Delphic priestess in historical times chewed a laurel leaf,” Harrison noted, “but when she was a Bee surely she must have sought her inspiration in the honeycomb.”
The Homeric Hymn to Apollo acknowledges that Apollo’s gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee maidens, usually but doubtfully identified with the Thriae, a trinity of pre-Hellenic Aegean bee goddesses.
A series of identical embossed gold plaques were recovered at Camiros in Rhodes; they date from the archaic period of Greek art in the seventh century, but the winged bee goddesses they depict must be far older.
The Kalahari Desert’s San people tell of 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 Egyptian mythology, bees grew from the tears of the sun god Ra when they landed on the desert sand.
The Baganda people of Uganda hold the legend of Kintu, the first man on earth. Save for his cow, Kintu lived alone. One day he asked permission from Ggulu, who lived in heaven, to marry his daughter Nambi.
Ggulu set Kintu on a trial of five tests to pass before he would agree. For his final test Kintu was told to pick Ggulu’s own cow from a stretch of cattle. Nambi aided Kintu in the final test by transforming herself into a bee, whispering into his ear to choose the one whose horn she landed upon.
In Greek mythology, Aristaeus was the god of bee-keeping. After inadvertently causing the death of Eurydice, who stepped upon a snake while fleeing him, her nymph sisters punished him by killing every one of his bees.
Witnessing the empty hives where his bees had dwelt, Aristaeus wept and consulted Proteus who advised him to give honor in memory of Eurydice by sacrificing four bulls and four cows.
Upon doing so, he let them rot and from their corpses rose bees to fill his empty hives.
According to Hittite mythology, the god of agriculture, Telipinu, went on a rampage and refused to allow anything to grow and animals would not produce offspring.
The gods went in search of Telipinu only to fail. Then the goddess Ḫannaḫanna sent forth a bee to bring him back. The bee finds Telipinu, stings him and smears wax upon him.
The god grew even angrier and it wasn’t until the goddess Kamrusepa (or a mortal priest according to some references) uses a ritual to send his anger to the Underworld.
In Hindu mythology, Parvati was summoned by the Gods to kill the demon Arunasura, who took over the heavens and the three worlds, in the form of Bhramari Devi.
To kill Arunasura, she stings him numerous times with the help of innumerable black bees emerging from her body. The Gods were finally able to take control of the heavens and the celestial worlds again. Also, the bowstring on Hindu love god Kamadeva’s bow is made of sugarcane, covered in bees.
The beehive is commonly used symbol in various human cultures. In Europe, it was used by the Romans as well as in heraldry. Most heraldic representation of beehives are in the form of a skep. Bees (and beehives) have some symbols often associated with them though it is not a universal:
So much has been written upon the habits and virtues of bees, that it is unnecessary to enlarge upon the subject …. Suffice it to say, that they imply industry, wealth, bounty, and wisdom in the bearer.— William Newton
In modern times, it is a key symbol in Freemasonry. In masonic lectures it represents industry and co-operation, and as a metaphor cautioning against intellectual laziness, warning that “he that will so demean himself as not to be endeavoring to add to the common stock of knowledge and understanding, may be deemed a drone in the hive of nature, a useless member of society, and unworthy of our protection as Masons.”
The beehive appears on the 3rd Degree emblems on the Tracing Board of Royal Cumberland No. 41, Bath and is explained as such:
The Beehive teaches us that as we are born into the world rational and intelligent beings, so ought we also to be industrious ones, and not stand idly by or gaze with listless indifference on even the meanest of our fellow creatures in a state of distress if it is in our power to help them without detriment to ourselves or our connections; the constant practice, – of this virtue is enjoined on all created beings, from the highest seraph in heaven to the meanest reptile that crawls in the dust.— Explanation on the 8th Century ritual
The beehive is also used with similar meaning by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. From Mormon usage it has become one of the State symbols of Utah (see Deseret).