Happy Valentine’s Day!
It’s funny how parents explaining the 'facts of life’ to their children are said to be talking about ‘the birds and the bees’. Especially as birds hatch out of eggs, and bees don’t even indulge in sexual activity as we know it. Bees provide a very curious model for adolescent love. According to Bee Wilson, author of The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, “all the (bee) boys want to sleep with a single girl, but the only ones who manage to do so are castrated and killed in their moment of success, while everyone else dies a virgin.”
I was surprised to learn that the sex life of bees remained a mystery for centuries and was only gradually unveiled in the eighteenth century. Bees are surrounded by honey, yet appear to be immune to the temptation of its sweetness. Perhaps this is why honey is found in celebrations of both sexual ecstasy and chaste worship?
For medieval Christians, bees came to represent the unique combination of productivity, order and chastity, towards which the monastic life aspired. And wax came to symbolize the most significant chastity of all: that of the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, Kama, the Hindu god of love who gives his name to the Kama Sutra, is often shown riding on a sort of bee-cum-lion creature. This strange beast also appears on the side of honey jars in India, where the bee symbolizes the sweetness of love, as well as its sting. And the earliest stories of Cupid in the 5th century BC had him stealing honeycomb.
Then there are words like honeytrap – a way of snaring someone using sexual espionage or blackmail. And honeymoon. It’s said this may refer to the Viking custom whereby the bride and groom ate honeyed cakes and drank mead for the first month of their betrothal. But honey appears in the marriage rites of many cultures. Even today, in Morocco, the newly married groom is supposed to feast on honey for its aphrodisiac effects. And in Bulgaria, wedding cake with honey is rubbed over the face of the bridegroom.
Never mind their declining numbers, it’s no wonder bees have been getting so much publicity lately… If you’re bitten by the bug, you can try out beekeeping for beginners at the Chelsea Physic garden. Or alternatively just indulge in some delicious English honey from Littleover Apiary. You can also read more about bee inspired product design in ShopCurious’s latest Curious Trends article. Or simply take inspiration from this version of the famous Cole Porter song - birds do it, bees do it: