When we think about bees and what they symbolise, there are many different aspects of life to consider. Almost every part of our existence can be symbolic of a bee's nature, the way they live or how they work. What a bee symbolises can have a profound effect on every part of our life, from our medical care to construction and everything in between.
When we talk about what bees symbolise, few ideas are more accurate than productivity, hard work and commitment. Whether it is a colony of Bumblebees or a single Solitary bee, pollinators are among the hardest working animals on the planet.
We know that bees collect nectar, and lots of it in comparison to their body size, but what do they need it for and how do they collect it? Bees usually visit one species of flower per foraging trip and they are attracted to the sweetest flowers as they hold the most nectar. Collecting nectar can be tricky, especially if it is deep within the flower, but bees have adapted a tube-like mouthpart that works like a straw.
A bee will continue visiting flowers until its "honey stomach" is full. This is a small sac that forms part of the bee's oesophagus. The bee then flies back to the nest to deposit its haul of nectar. If the nectar source is a large one, the bee will inform the other members of the colony by performing a waggle dance. Essentially, this is a series of movements that tell other bees how to find the nectar. The same bee will then transfer the nectar from their "honey stomach" to another colony worker so they can begin honey production. The transfer of nectar between bees is called trophallaxis.
It is not just the collection of nectar that makes bees so productive. They are also responsible for the pollination of plants and flowers within their foraging area. Although bees do not pollinate consciously, their bodies are the perfect vector for moving pollen between flowers.
Bees have thousands of hairs on their body and legs, perfect for pollen grains to stick to as the bee forages in plants and flowers for nectar. As the bees fly to the next flower, pollen grains fall off her body, cross-pollinating the plants she lands on.
A little known fact is that pollen also forms part of a bee's diet. It is an essential source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and protein. When a bee returns from a pollen-collecting trip, they must deliver the pollen themselves, unlike the workers who receive the nectar. Pollen is stored around the edges of the brood cells. Nurse bees eat the pollen, using the absorbed nutrients to create royal jelly, which in turn is used to feed larvae, workers and the queen. For the workers and drones, pollen is mixed with honey and certain enzymes to form "bee bread".
What does a bee symbolise better for productivity than nest building? The very way they build their homes is something of a marvel. Few animal species build homes quite like bees. Some bee species build their nests below ground, painstakingly digging out extensive tunnel networks connecting individual cells where larvae hatch and develop. Species that nest above ground must use their environment to build the structure of the cells. Leafcutter bees, as the name suggests, carefully cut out pieces of sturdy leaf or flower petals, roll their materials and carry them back to the nest site. These leaf pieces are used to create the walls of each cell within the nest.
Community spirit is the embodiment of what bees symbolise. A single Bumblebee nest can have as many as 400 individuals, each with a vital role to maintain the strength and health of the colony. The Queen alone lays all the eggs that will become worker bees, drones or even the future queen when the current queen can no longer lay eggs. An unfertilised queen will take part in a mating flight with a drone bee where she will collect enough sperm to fertilise all the eggs she will lay in her lifetime. She then finds a suitable spot to form the beginning of her colony. Once the first worker bees are mature, they will take over.
Worker bees are female. They are responsible for collecting nectar, pollen and propolis for the colony, as well as gathering materials to maintain the nest and protecting the colony. Female worker bees are the ones that have a stinger, drones do not. Some bee species, like the Bumblebee, have a smooth stinger and will not die after stinging. The honeybee has a barbed stinger. While they can sting other insects and survive, a Honeybee's barbed stinger cannot be removed from human skin. In attempting to remove their stinger, a Honeybee, unfortunately, pulls the stinger from their own body, which is the cause of their death.
Drones are male bees and their sole purpose is to mate with an unfertilised queen. When drone bees are ready to hatch, nurse bees have to help them. Drones are easily spotted as they are the larger bees that spend most of their time around the entrance to nests, waiting for unfertilised queens to emerge.
Aside from helping drone bees to emerge from their eggs, nurse bees also provide food for all the larvae, worker bees, drones and the queen. They ensure each brood cell has nectar and royal jelly. They also feed the adult workers by providing "bee bread".
Even some solitary bee species will live close to others of the same species. Female solitary bees may build nests near other bees. These are known as aggregations, with lots of nests within the same area. Several females may share one nest, with each female responsible for her own cells and providing food for the larvae.
There is such a strong connection between bees and community spirit that the bee has been the symbol of Manchester since 1842. During the Industrial Revolution, cotton mills were referred to as beehives.
Few animals demonstrate fertility like bees. Take the Honeybee. A queen is capable of laying up to 2000 eggs per day during her prime and her colony can number as many as 60,000 individuals. Honeybees are domesticated and there are very few wild colonies left in the UK.
When it comes to colony size, the Stingless bee symbolises fertility like no other species. Native to the Americas, a single Stingless bee colony can have a whopping 100,000 bees! This is possible due to the unique behavioural quirk of Stingless bee queens. They are often called nest parasites, as the queen may fly to another colony's nest to lay her eggs.
Not only do bees show remarkable fertility within their own colony, but many different plant and flower species are also reliant on bees to reproduce. Bees collect pollen on their hairy body and legs and drop it on surrounding vegetation as they fly about in search of nectar or propolis. Scientists believe that many plant species would never have evolved without pollination from bees.
You cannot ask what bees symbolise without mentioning health. Bees have immaculate nest hygiene, with each cell or chamber having a specific purpose. Brood cells are only ever used to house eggs and larvae, with separate areas for food storage and honey production.
Bees maintain their good health by collecting and producing their own food. Nectar is used to make honey, which is a valuable food source. Some honey is saved for the winter months when nectar and pollen are scarce. Bees also use nectar, pollen and specific enzymes to create "bee bread", another vital food source. Honey is also used to make beeswax, which in turn is used as cement for the nest cells.
It is not just bee health, but human health too. Honey has long been used as a salve for ailments such as mouth ulcers, inflammation and minor burns. Honey has anti-inflammatory properties which can reduce swelling and skin irritation. Scientists have also shown that honey has antibacterial properties. It is capable of slowing the growth of E.coli and Salmonella.
Manuka honey is often used to aid in the healing of minor wounds. This is due to its slightly acidic pH. During healing, the state of the tissue around the wound will change from alkaline, through neutral to a slightly acidic level. By using honey with a pH slightly above neutral, the healing process can progress at a faster rate.
Many natural cosmetics brands now use honey as an ingredient due to its ability to soothe most mild skin complaints. Its antibacterial properties help to maintain the health of skin cells and promote regrowth of damaged skin.
What do bees symbolise more than power and determination? We have already discussed a bee's ability to sting, but there are many other aspects of bee life that show these qualities. For such a small creature, they really do pack a punch! It is not just their stinging ability that makes bees a symbol of power. When a nest or hive is threatened, female worker bees will swarm as one unit to protect their colony. Anything they see as a threat will be attacked or chased off. There are few things more imposing or frightening than a huge swarm of angry bees.
Bees have such power and determination, that they will even give their own lives in order to protect their queen and the colony. Strength in numbers keeps a bee colony safe and protected.