1. The bee in ancient Egypt

In a world without sugar, the bee was highly valued: a 4,500-year-old hieroglyph shows a beekeeper with cylindrical hives of a type still used in Sudan today. Egyptologist Sir EA Wallis Budge told a story of some men who found a large sealed jar containing honey. One of the party noticed that a man dipping his bread into the honey had a hair on his finger; they then discovered the body of a small child, in a good state of preservation.

2. The Roman bee

The Greeks and Romans adored bees and their names for them have been handed down: Melissa is the Greek word for a honey bee and the Latin Apis mellifera is the technical term for a honey bee. The most famous Roman writer about bees is Virgil, who describes them so accurately that he must surely have kept them. In beautiful poetry he specifies, for example, the best place to site hives: “mind there’s a bubbling spring nearby, a pool moss-bordered and a rill ghosting through the grass”. But he was wrong about one thing: he talks about the king bee.

3. Sex-change bee

From ancient times onwards the biggest bee in a colony was called a king – Basileus in Greek and Rex in Latin. Many moral lessons were drawn about masculine strength and leadership qualities. The flaw, of course, is that there is no king bee but a queen, a discovery that wasn’t confirmed until 1623 by Charles Butler in his book The Feminine Monarchy.

4. Napoleonic bee

Perhaps inspired by those ancient kings of Egypt, Napoleon picked the bee as his symbol. The bees on his coronation robes are said to have been inspired by the golden bees (in fact, cicadas) discovered in the tomb of Childeric I, founder in 457 of the Merovingian dynasty and father of Clovis.

5. ‘Bee Movie’

With the slogan “Honey Just Got Funny”, the film Bee Movie tells the story of Barry B Benson, a graduate bee who decides not to enter the Honex Industries Hive. Exploring the outside world, Barry discovers that humans steal and actually eat honey, and subsequently decides to sue them. It’s a view shared by many natural beekeepers, who believe it is wrong to take bees’ honey. A moral position, perhaps – but honey is simply too irresistible.


Martha Kearney is presenting ‘The Wonder of Bees’, a four-part series that begins on Monday April 14 at 8pm on BBC4

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