Bees as role models
Many monks and nuns have practiced beekeeping and the bee colony has often been described as a role model not only for monasteries but for society as a whole. In the context of monasteries, the imagined chastity of the worker bees attracted particular attention: like them, the celibate monastics forsook family to devote themselves fully to the good of the community.
Bees helped cardinal Maffeo Berberini to become a pope. His family coat originally bore horseflies, which Berberini transformed into bees. Bees not only seemed more noble and prestigious, they were well-known symbols of dedication and eloquence since antiquity. Moreover, their hive was a beloved symbol of the church and its community of the faithful. As Pope Urban VIII, he thanked the bees by placing their images all over Rome, including on the columns of St Peter’s Basilica.
Honey and beeswax
In many cultures and religions, such as ancient Greece and Judaism, the natural sweetness of honey has come to symbolize the sweet words of gifted orators. This is also the case in Christianity, as shown by a legend concerning the early church father St. Ambrose (339-397). According to the legend, when he was a child, Ambrose’s father saw a swarm of bees land on his mouth. Even though the father feared for his child, the bees did not sting the boy but brought him honey instead. His father interpreted this event as a sign from God that his son would become a great orator. St. Ambrose later became known as the honey-tongued doctor and was famous for his preachings. To this day, he is honored by beekeepers as their patron saint.
Not only honey but also beeswax has played an important role in Christianity. In the medieval Catholic Church, honey and wax were considered sacred substances. For a long time, beeswax candles were the preferred and often only method for illumination of Catholic Churches. Unlike the heavy, dark smoke produced by candles made from animal fat, beeswax candles produce a light, clear smoke.