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Source: Kongelige Bibliotek (Bestiarius - Bestiary of Anne Walsh (Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4║)) Copyright 2003 Kongelige Bibliotek / Used by permission Manuscript description Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4║, Folio 47r



Latin name: Apes

Other names: Abeille

Bees are the smallest of birds, and are born from the bodies of oxen


General Attributes

Bees are the smallest of birds. They are born from the bodies of oxen, or from the decaying flesh of slaughtered calves; worms form in the flesh and then turn into bees. Bees live in community, choose the most noble among them as king, have wars, and make honey. Their laws are based on custom, but the king does not enforce the law; rather the lawbreakers punish themselves by stinging themselves to death. Bees are afraid of smoke and are excited by noise. Each has its own duty: guarding the food supply, watching for rain, collecting dew to make honey, and making wax from flowers.

Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 11, 4-23): Pliny has a great deal to say about bees. They belong to neither the wild or domesticated class of animals. Of all insects, bees alone were created for the sake of man. They collect honey, make wax, build structures, work hard, and have a government and leaders. They retire for the winter, since they cannot endure cold. They build their hives of many materials gathered from various plants. They gather honey from flowers close to the hive, and send out scouts to farther pastures when the nearby flowers are exhausted; if the scouts cannot return before nightfall, they make camp and lie on their backs to protect their wings from dew. They post a guard at the gates of the hive, and after sleeping until dawn they are woken by one of their number and all fly out together, if the weather is fine. They can forecast wind and rain so they know when not to go out. The young bees go out to collect materials while the old work indoors. Honey comes out of the air; in falling from a great height it accumulates dirt and is stained with the vapor of the earth; it becomes purified after the bees collect it and allow it to ferment in the hive. Smoke is used to drive away the bees so their honey can be collected, though too much smoke kills them. Out of several possible candidates, bees select the best to be king, and kill the others to avoid division; the king is twice as large as other bees, is brilliantly colored, and has a white spot on his brow. The common bees obey and protect the king, as they are unable to be without him. Bees like the sound of clanging bronze, which summons them together. Dead bees can be revived if they are covered with mud and the body of an ox or bull.

Augustine [5th century CE] (City of God, Book 15, chapter 27): Bees are born out of corruption (ie: from rotting flesh) and have no sex.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 11, 4:3): Bees are formed by the transformation through decay of the putrid flesh of calves. (Book 12, 8:1-3): Bees (apes) have their name either because they bind themselves together with their feet (pes), or because they are born without feet (a-pes), only later growing feet and wings. They live in fixed places, are diligent in producing honey, build their houses with great skill, gather honey from various flowers, weave wax to fill their homes with many offspring, have kings and armies with which they wage war, flee from smoke, and are irritated by noise. Witnesses say that they are born out of the corpses of oxen, because they are created by beating the flesh of slaughtered calves; this causes worms to form which later become bees. It is correct to say that bees are born from oxen, just as hornets come from horses, drone-bees from mules, and wasps from asses. The Greek call the larger bees found in the farthest part of the hive oestri some say these are the kings, because they pitch camps (castra). The drone (fucus) is larger than other bees; it is so called because it feeds on (fagus = phagos) the produce of others, eating what it did not work for.

St Antony of Padua [12th-13th century CE] (Sermons): Penitents are compared to bees. Natural historians tell us that the smaller bees are the better workers. They have subtle wings, and their colour is black, and as it were sunburnt; but the handsomer bees are of the number of those who do nothing. The small bees are penitents, who are little in their own eyes, and are always employed about some work, lest the devil should come and find their house empty and idle. They also have subtle wings, which are contempt of the world, and love of the heavenly kingdom ; by which, elevating themselves from this earth, they more subtilly contemplate the glory of God. They are also of a dark colour; whence, in the first of Canticles, the penitent soul saith, " I am black, but comely." ... Penitents ought to do as the bees, who, when their king flies from the hive, fly with him, and crowd closely round him,he in the middle, and they on every side; and when the king can fly no longer, the company of bees carries him; and if he dies, they all die together with him. Christ, our King, flew to us from the hive, that is to say, from the bosom of the Father. Whom we ought to follow like good bees, and to fly with Him, and to place Him, that is, His faith, in the midst of us, that is, in our hearts. And if any one of His members shall have fallen into sin, we ought to support and to bear Him up, and to die with Christ crucified and dying, crucifying our own flesh, with its affections and lusts. (MediŠval preachers and mediŠval preaching: A series of extracts, translated from the sermons of the middle ages, chronologically arranged; with notes and an introduction (London, 1856) Neale translation)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): The properties of bees are wonderful noble and worthy. For bees have one common kind as children, and dwell in one habitation, and are closed within one gate: one travail is common to them all, one meat is common to them all, one common working, one common use, one fruit and flight is common to them all, and one generation is common to them all. Also maidenhood of body without wem is common to them all, and so is birth also. For they are not medlied with service of Venus, nother resolved with lechery, nother bruised with sorrow of birth of children. And yet they bring forth most swarms of children. Bees make among them a king, and ordain among them common people. And though they be put and set under a king, yet they are free and love their king that they make, by kind love, and defend him with full great defence, and hold [it] honour and worship to perish and be spilt for their king, and do their king so great worship that none of them dare go out of their house, nor to get meat, but if the king pass out and take the principality of flight. And bees chose to their king him that is most worthy and noble in highness and fairness, and most clear in mildness, for that is chief virtue in a king. For though their king have a sting yet he useth it not in wreck. And also bees that are unobedient to the king, they deem themselves by their own doom for to die by the wound of their own sting. And of a swarm of bees is none idle. Some fight, as it were in battle, in the field against other bees, some are busy about meat, and some watch the coming of showers. And some behold concourse and meting of dues, and some make wax of flowers, and some make cells now round, now square with wonder binding and joining, and evenness. And yet nevertheless, among so diverse works none of them doth espy nor wait to take out of other's travail, neither taketh wrongfully, neither stealeth meat, but each seeketh and gathereth by his own flight and travail among herbs and flowers that are good and convenable. Bees sit not on fruit but on flowers, not withered but fresh and new, and gather matter of the which they make both honey and wax. And when the flowers that are nigh unto them be spent, then they send spies for to espy meat in further places. And if the night falleth upon them in their journey, then they lie upright to defend their wings from rain, and from dew, that they may in the morrow tide fly the more swifter to their work with their wings dry and able to fly. And they ordain watches after the manner of castles, and rest all night until it be day, till one bee wake them all with twice buzzing or thrice, or with some manner trumping; then they fly all, if the day be fair on the morrow. And the bees that bring and bear what is needful, dread blasts of wind, and fly therefore low by the ground when they be charged, lest they be letted with some manner of blasts, and charge themselves sometimes with gravel or with small stones, that they may be the more stedfast against blasts of wind by heaviness of the stones. The obedience of bees is wonderful about the king, for when he passeth forth, all the swarm in one cluster passeth with him. And he is beclipped about with the swarm, as it were with an host of knights. And is then unneth seen that time for the multitude that followeth and serveth him, and when the people of bees are in travail, he is within, and as it were governor, and goeth about to comfort others for to work. And only he is not bound to travail. And all about him are certain bees with stings, as it were champions, and continual wardens of the king's body. And he passeth selde out, but when all the swarm shall go out. His outgoing is known certain days tofore by voice of the host, as it were arraying itself to pass out with the king. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

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