Something about Bees from the Humanities Point of View

In the days of ancient civilizations, when the wild wasp was domesticated into a bee, humans and bees developed a close relationship with each other. An external representation of this relationship is the bees’ “dwelling,” the beehive. The beehive’s origins are in the natural defensive spaces, for example a cavern inside a tree trunk or a bough, where the bees built their honeycombs. Ancient civilizations, and even primitive cultures, created human or mythical figures out of tree trunks inhabited by the bees. Traditional basket-shaped beehives, or skeps, appeared much later, and the modern frame-based beehive, with its underlying principles of rationality and profit making, has existed only for some 150 years.

This is why the formal language and aesthetics of Mykola Zhuravel’s beehive has such a positive effect. Constructed from wood, painted with the leukas primer (like a traditional icon), and then decorated with an artistic relief, the beehive resembles a temple. It reflects elements of the Ukrainian landscape, and at the same time the character of the bee colony. One of its sides creates a warlike, defensive impression, while the other looks harmonious and hospitable. The expanse of the internal space grants the bees “creative freedom,” and in its pear-like shape resembles a woman’s womb.

The beehive works within the landscape, developing a personality and becoming its creative element (land-art). This unmediated aesthetic expression visualizes the spiritual and soul ties between bees and humans. Within it the ancient mythical ties also come alive. The focus here is not on honey as a type of nourishment; the bee becomes a holy creature, a symbol of spiritual being—a bee family (der Bien). This term denotes a spiritual presence, the invisible personality of a bee family. The beekeepers always stress their intimate experience and “dialogue” with this personality. Some dramatic events are also known to happen following the death of the “Bees’ Father” (the beekeper).

The bees reject a different “Bees’ Father” (or “Mother”), and follow their Father into the spiritual world. They die. Rudolf Steiner (spiritualist philosopher and founder of anthroposophy, 1861–1925) depicts this as follows: when a bee family swarms, that is, follows the new queen bee, they experience a process similar to that of a soul of a dying person that leaves the dead body and strives for a new incarnation.

The physical and chemical processes that take place inside a beehive have been thoroughly studied by natural sciences, and still every time new facts are discovered: about the flight of the bees, about their dance, the communication between the bees inside the beehive by way of different kinds of vibration of cell membranes, and so forth. The human sciences regard the beehive as an analogue of the human head and body. For instance, the drones resemble the nerve cells, the worker bees resemble the blood cells, and human protein cells, especially those inside the head, resemble those of the queen bee. The red blood cells work inside our bodies like the diligent worker bees, building and maintaining our body, which, of course, is a conglomeration of cells. Inside our bodies cells also tend towards hexagonal shapes; this is particularly visible in the case of bone cells. In our nerve cells a tendency towards dying off is constantly present (our consciousness is based on this) which consumes the living energy of our bodies, just like the self-satisfied drones who consume the honey collected by the worker bees. The stem cells of the human fetus, out of which later develop the blood cells and the nerve cells, are analogous in their periods of development to the queen bee (16 days), worker bee (21 days) and the drone (24 days). From here follows the solar character of the queen bee who develops the fastest; the earthen character of the drone who develops the slowest; and the balanced lunar character of the worker bee. There are a number of other remarkable correspondences between the chemistry of the human body and of the beehive, and the important activity of the bees, essential for the natural world.

The blossom, the nectar, the honey, the wax, the propolis—they form a cycle that sustains and heals our lives, the Earth and the Cosmos; this is the essence of the bee. To be in a community and in communion with the bees is to receive and care for the healing and life promoting forces of the Earth. But still, the most beautiful thing that the bee family offers is the wonderfully balanced social organism, based upon the division of labor, rejection of personal enrichment and satisfaction for the sake of the organism in its totality. Is this not the moving force of love, is this not a demonstration of the solar character of the bee state?

Joseph Beuys developed the notion of social sculpture that we observe in a potential form in the life of bees. One of his action pieces, presented at Documenta 6 in Kassel in 1997, was called Honey Pump at the Workplace (“Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz”). For one hundred days honey flowed through hose pipes in a room where people held a discussion in search of new ideas for the social organism.

Every day Beuys tasted the honey, and every day it became tastier, finer, more aromatic and mature . . . One spring day, sitting under the blossoming apple tree, I noticed a mysterious sound emanating from the tree. It turned softer, then louder, at times almost became a melody, then turned quiet; it was so close to being grasped with words and still remained out of the reach of comprehension, endlessly mysterious, harmonious, cosmically solar . . .

These were the bees, thousands of them, gathering nectar from the blossoms, and in their sound resonated the cosmic song of eternally present love.

Christian Gusewski

Director, Gallery ARTRU

Runenberg, Switzerland

Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky


Steiner, Rudolf. Bees, trans. Thomas Braatz. Hudson, N.Y.: Anthroposophic Press, 1998.

Grimm, Gunter. Die Honigmacher [The Honey Makers]. Munich: Ehrenwirth, 1991.

von Frisch, Karl. Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses, and Language. Rev. ed. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1971.

Internet: Prof. Tautz, University of Wurzburg