Relationship with humans

In mythology and folklore

Gold plaques embossed with winged bee goddesses. Camiros, Rhodes. 7th century B.C.

Homer’s Hymn to Hermes describes three bee-maidens with the power of divination and thus speaking truth, and identifies the food of the gods as honey. Sources associated the bee maidens with Apollo and, until the 1980s, scholars followed Gottfried Hermann (1806) in incorrectly identifying the bee-maidens with the Thriae.

Honey, according to a Greek myth, was discovered by a nymph called Melissa (“Bee”); and honey was offered to the Greek gods from Mycenean times. Bees were also associated with the Delphic oracle and the prophetess was sometimes called a bee.

The image of a community of honey bees has been used from ancient to modern times, in Aristotle and Plato; in Virgil and Seneca; in Erasmus and Shakespeare; Tolstoy, and by political and social theorists such as Bernard Mandeville and Karl Marx as a model for human society.

 In English folklore, bees would be told of important events in the household, in a custom known as “Telling the bees”.

In art and literature

Beatrix Potter’s illustration of Babbity Bumble in The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse, 1910

Some of the oldest examples of bees in art are rock paintings in Spain which have been dated to 15,000 BC.

W. B. Yeats’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree (1888) contains the couplet “Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee, And live alone in the bee loud glade.”

At the time he was living in Bedford Park in the West of London. Beatrix Potter’s illustrated book The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse (1910) features Babbity Bumble and her brood (pictured). Kit Williams’ treasure hunt book The Bee on the Comb (1984) uses bees and beekeeping as part of its story and puzzle.

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees (2004), and the 2009 film starring Dakota Fanning, tells the story of a girl who escapes her abusive home and finds her way to live with a family of beekeepers, the Boatwrights.

The humorous 2007 animated film Bee Movie used Jerry Seinfeld’s first script and was his first work for children; he starred as a bee named Barry B. Benson, alongside Renée Zellweger.

Critics found its premise awkward and its delivery tame. Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale (2014) describes his efforts to save bumblebees in Britain, as well as much about their biology.

The playwright Laline Paull’s fantasy The Bees (2015) tells the tale of a hive bee named Flora 717 from hatching onwards.


A commercial beekeeper at work

Humans have kept honey bee colonies, commonly in hives, for millennia. Beekeepers collect honeybeeswaxpropolispollen, and royal jelly from hives; bees are also kept to pollinate crops and to produce bees for sale to other beekeepers.

Depictions of humans collecting honey from wild bees date to 15,000 years ago; efforts to domesticate them are shown in Egyptian art around 4,500 years ago. Simple hives and smoke were used; jars of honey were found in the tombs of pharaohs such as Tutankhamun.

From the 18th century, European understanding of the colonies and biology of bees allowed the construction of the moveable comb hive so that honey could be harvested without destroying the colony.

Among Classical Era authors, beekeeping with the use of smoke is described in Aristotle’s History of Animals Book 9.

The account mentions that bees die after stinging; that workers remove corpses from the hive, and guard it; castes including workers and non-working drones, but “kings” rather than queens; predators including toads and bee-eaters; and the waggle dance, with the “irresistible suggestion” of άpοσειονται (“aroseiontai”, it waggles) and παρακολουθούσιν (“parakolouthousin”, they watch).

Beekeeping is described in detail by Virgil in his Georgics; it is also mentioned in his Aeneid, and in Pliny’s Natural History.

As commercial pollinators

Squash bees (Apidae) are important pollinators of squashes and cucumbers.
Bee covered in pollen

Bees play an important role in pollinating flowering plants, and are the major type of pollinator in many ecosystems that contain flowering plants.

It is estimated that one third of the human food supply depends on pollination by insects, birds and bats, most of which is accomplished by bees, whether wild or domesticated.

Over the last half century, there has been a general decline in the species richness of wild bees and other pollinators, probably attributable to stress from increased parasites and disease, the use of pesticides, and a general decrease in the number of wild flowers. Climate change probably exacerbates the problem.

Contract pollination has overtaken the role of honey production for beekeepers in many countries. After the introduction of Varroa mites, feral honey bees declined dramatically in the US, though their numbers have since recovered.

The number of colonies kept by beekeepers declined slightly, through urbanization, systematic pesticide use, tracheal and Varroa mites, and the closure of beekeeping businesses. In 2006 and 2007 the rate of attrition increased, and was described as colony collapse disorder.

 In 2010 invertebrate iridescent virus and the fungus Nosema ceranae were shown to be in every killed colony, and deadly in combination. Winter losses increased to about 1/3.Varroa mites were thought to be responsible for about half the losses.

Apart from colony collapse disorder, losses outside the US have been attributed to causes including pesticide seed dressings, using neonicotinoids such as Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam.

 From 2013 the European Union restricted some pesticides to stop bee populations from declining further.In 2014 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that bees faced increased risk of extinction because of global warming.

In 2018 the European Union decided to ban field use of all three major neonicotinoids; they remain permitted in veterinary, greenhouse, and vehicle transport usage.

Farmers have focused on alternative solutions to mitigate these problems. By raising native plants, they provide food for native bee pollinators like Lasioglossum vierecki and L. leucozonium, leading to less reliance on honey bee populations.

As food producers

Honey is a natural product produced by bees and stored for their own use, but its sweetness has always appealed to humans.

Before domestication of bees was even attempted, humans were raiding their nests for their honey. Smoke was often used to subdue the bees and such activities are depicted in rock paintings in Spain dated to 15,000 BC.

Honey bees are used commercially to produce honey. They also produce some substances used as dietary supplements with possible health benefits, pollen, propolis, and royal jelly, though all of these can also cause allergic reactions.

As food (bee brood)

Bee larvae as food in the Javanese dish botok tawon
Bees are partly considered edible insects. Indigenous people in many countries eat insects, including the larvae and pupae of bees, mostly stingless species.
They also gather larvae, pupae and surrounding cells, known as bee brood, for consumption. In the Indonesian dish botok tawon from Central and East Java, bee larvae are eaten as a companion to rice, after being mixed with shredded coconut, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed.


Bee brood (pupae and larvae) although low in calcium, has been found to be high in protein and carbohydrate, and a useful source of phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and trace minerals iron, zinc, copper, and selenium.

In addition, while bee brood was high in fat, it contained no fat soluble vitamins (such as A, D, and E) but it was a good source of most of the water-soluble B-vitamins including choline as well as vitamin C. The fat was composed mostly of saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids with 2.0% being polyunsaturated fatty acids.

As alternative medicine

Apitherapy is a branch of alternative medicine that uses honey bee products, including raw honey, royal jelly, pollen, propolisbeeswax and apitoxin (Bee venom) The claim that apitherapy treats cancer, which some proponents of apitherapy make, remains unsupported by evidence-based medicine.


The painful stings of bees are mostly associated with the poison gland and the Dufour’s gland which are abdominal exocrine glands containing various chemicals. In Lasioglossum leucozonium, the Dufour’s Gland mostly contains octadecanolide as well as some eicosanolide. There is also evidence of n-triscosane, n-heptacosane,and 22-docosanolide. However, the secretions of these glands could also be used for nest construction.

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