Everyone likes bees these days and it’s a good thing because they are so central to our survival on the planet. But even before we knew about their role in pollination around the world, people still thought of them as useful little creatures, working hard and in particular, working as a unit to support the survival of the hive. I have always thought bumblebees were adorable and I know I’m not the only one. A friend once told me her daughter used to go out into their back garden in the spring, wait for them to land on her hand, and then pet them. I was more than a little jealous.
Bees are also famous in the American South for the expression “Go tell the bees”: it is our responsibility to tell the bees when someone has passed away, in order to maintain some kind of mysterious balance that no one really ever explains in novels or movies. It’s this role that associates them with psychopomps — creatures that can cross over between worlds, specifically, the Underworld and our world (Mercury is another famour psychopomp: he is the god who escorts Persephone back and forth between her mother Demeter and her husband Hades). I would guess this is a way of preparing a place for a loved one: we tell the bees, and they fly through the Veil with the news so that the Underworld is prepared for a new arrival. It’s a sticky tradition, though, because it only works with the Underworld. You can’t really say that bees are going back and forth between Heaven and Earth or that bees are taking the place of Christian angels. So no one presses too hard to try and explain this one. Bees’ mystery is part of their allure.
It’s clearly a folk tradition from outwith Christianity, and although there are associations of bees and Christianity, it feels like one of those things that could work with any animal: “In Christian tradition, [the bee] is the emblem of Christ, of his forgiveness (through analogy with the sweetness of his honey), with his justice (through its sting), and Christian virtues (because of the exemplary way worker bees behave towards their queen”. It works, but it’s a little forced, let’s face it, and you could make these kind of associations with almost anything. And let’s not forget that Christianity historically just absorbs what it wants to replace, if it can.
Daniel Robitaille of the 1992 film ‘Candyman’ is abducted and murdered in the 19th century for having an inter-racial love affair. His murderers smear him with honey so that bees swarm around him and sting him to death, thinking they sense a threat to the hive. Of course this is a powerful metaphor for a Black man being swarmed, tortured, and murdered by a white mob for what they see as an act of transgression. The bees here act as psychopomps but in a more literal sense because they are involved in Robitaille’s death. But there is a special intimacy, a particular betrayal because this death is shown as horrifically intimate: he is pictured with bees not only all over him, but in his mouth, in his nose, in his ears. In the mythic sense, the bees pass between this world and the next through his body instead of their usual route, and since this is not the way it is supposed to work, the exchange leaves Daniel Robitaille with a gift — their gift of transgression. He is now a psychopomp too, able to come back and forth between the world of the living and the dead, and like the bees, act as an escort. And of course, the urban myth of the Candyman reflects the folk myth of the bees. Is he real? Do they really do that? (Walk away from the mirror, seriously, stop it.)
It is bees’ ability to cross between worlds that makes them such a potent alchemical symbol, and also the way they work together for the common good. But this common good isn’t the same thing as social work, for example, or even something like farming, which ultimately benefits so many of us. Bees give us the instinct to find and express our own Divine Will, as an integral part of the Great Work of humanity’s enlightenment, and we do this by travelling back and forth between worlds in meditation or contemplation. We go to the Otherworld, and we come back, sometimes with messages or revelations. And it makes me wonder …
I wonder if, at some point in the past, the bees had a bigger job. Maybe they were responsible not just for nipping over to the Otherworld and creating a place for us when we are ready to move on; what if they also brought something back to this world? Maybe it was news, and maybe it still happens. Wouldn’t you say that the moment of sudden inspiration can be a little bit like a bee sting that jolts you awake? What if that was a mystical bee buzzing in your ear with news, and you just happened to be in the right place to really hear?