The Bee

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


There is an inherent law - not only in the primordial, but also in the manifested matter of our phenomenal plane - by which Nature correlates her geometrical forms, and later, also, her compound elements; and in which there is no place for accident or chance.

The Secret Doctrine

 The World Tree rises up from its roots through every level of existence, its branches bearing the nectarine fruit of the gods. Before the first ray of light delineated its form, the atmosphere was impregnated with humidity and the honeydew fell all around the stirring, swarming tree. In this way, said the ancient Norse, the universe began to take shape - out of the flowing droplets of the waters of space and the sweet essence of Divine Immortality. Once again, "the two opposites in cosmic nature - fire and water, heat and cold - began their metrographical manifestations, one by a trimetric, the other by a hexagonal system". The Orphic tradition held that the bee was the symbol of the soul. Like a great colony winging out from the hive, so souls were seen as swarming out from the Divine Unity. In all cultures where the Great Mother was worshipped, the bee was given a sacred status. It symbolized the renewed activity of springtime, the budding and flowering of the World Tree. Its swarming signified rebirth, while its love of caves, the deepened clefts leading to the underworld, reveals its connection with death. The ancient Greeks identified bees as the souls of the dead, either returning to earth or hastening to the next world. They also referred to them as the Birds (souls) of the Muses, and it was believed that if they touched an infant's lips he would have the gift of song or exceptional eloquence - even, perhaps, the gift of prophecy. This was said to have happened to Plato, Sophocles, Virgil and others.

 In the Egyptian hieroglyphic language the bee was the symbol of royal nomenclature, a reflection of hierarchical organization as well as of industry, creative activity and wealth. The Rig Veda often refers to the bee and depicts Kama as carrying a bow whose string is a chain of bees. Lord Vishnu himself is represented as a blue bee on a lotus flower, perhaps signifying his azure repose while at the same time suggesting the commencement of a creative cycle. In the Hellenic myth which describes how the infant Zeus eluded his all-devouring father Cronos and came to be secretly raised in a cave, he was fed, it is said, on milk and honey from Melissa's bees. Legend tells that when four men discovered the babe in the cave while searching for honey, they were attacked by these bees, who were rewarded for their loyalty with the divine gift of asexual reproduction. The chastity and immaculate origin of bees is still stated as a fact thousands of years later, while the honey of Melissa continues to be credited with divine powers of healing, strength and longevity. One may find the origin of such ideas in ancient teachings. In the Hindu tradition there are allusions to Madhu-Vidya, the "Wisdom that reveals the Delight or 'Secret honey' of the Creative Spirit or the Absolute". It brings unification, balance and harmony to all variations of divine play. Madhu is a Sanskrit term meaning 'honey'. Over time it came to be known in the Indo-European languages as medhu, which clearly showed that the earliest intoxicating wine was made of honey which Europeans called mead. It is significant that the Greek word for this drink is hydromel, which is the root for the term 'methyl', indicating both the spirit and drunkenness. Plato undoubtedly had something more exalted in mind when he used the phrase 'to be drunk with nectar'. Perhaps it is the later followers of Dionysus, who was originally a god of the honey-drink, that were responsible for the orgiastic use of the once divine liquid. Sadly, by the time the Vikings came to focus upon the enforced inebriation of hapless victims whose lives were taken during the ship burials of their great chiefs, mead was well on its way to becoming the mainstay of the drunken chaos of medieval European public houses. Far cry indeed from the identification of honey with the thickening drops that presage manifested life, the immaculate budding droplets which were later identified by Christians as the honeyed tears of Christ.

 Though apiarian folklore rich in symbolism abounds throughout the world, the honey-bee is thought to have originated in South Asia. At first, men hunted bees in order to obtain their honey, but with the domestication of flowering plants they were able to house colonies in primitive hives made of straw, mud or sometimes wood. They began to observe the hierarchical activities of these marvellous insects at closer range and over longer periods of time. Historians of beekeeping note that when early keepers discovered that the queen could not produce wax or carry pollen and nectar, they incorrectly deduced that this central figure within the colony was a king. While this may have been true among some observers in strong patriarchical societies, it seems doubtful that in cultures where the Mother Goddess was important this misconception would have been perpetuated. In any event, it eventually became general knowledge that the queen was a very specialized egg-producer, indispensable to but completely dependent upon the other members of the colony, which often number as many as fifty thousand workers and one thousand drones. Once mated, the queen will lay two thousand eggs per day during the height of the summer. She lacks the glands for wax production and her tongue is too short to gather nectar. Her legs have no pollen baskets and her eyes have fewer hexagonal facets than workers and drones. But her abdomen is elongated and she carries within her enough spermatozoa to fertilize a lifetime production of eggs. She began her own life as an egg identical to any other female worker egg. Her morphological and functional differences can be attributed solely to the fact that as an egg she was deposited by the previous queen in a larger hexagonal cell, and during her larval development she was lavishly supplied with royal jelly for a longer length of time than other bees.

 In her early life the virgin queen learns the position of the hive in short preliminary flights. She learns which hive is hers by visual reference to nearby landmarks so that when she makes her 'nuptial flight' she will be certain to return to the correct colony. During fine weather and after noon the queen flies out to mate. She approaches the loudly buzzing drones who have flown out to fulfil this purpose. It is believed that five of them will pursue and mate with her, but as each of these completes his task, he falls to the ground dead. The queen returns to the hive seeming like a regal matron, and the workers who have been largely engaged in their own business now become extremely attentive to her needs. Her courtiers surround her constantly, forming a perfect oval frame as they relentlessly edge her from one area of waxen cells to another. Her thorax becomes rubbed hairless by the constant licking of workers whose tongues pick up bits of a substance emitted by small glands atop the regal head. Significantly, this 'queen-substance' acts as a tranquillizer, and as long as it is present in the diet of the workers they will remain content and hard-working. If the queen dies or if for any reason there is a cessation of this supply, the workers will take every measure to supply a new queen. If this is not possible, the workers themselves will develop ovaries and begin laying eggs. Ordinarily, workers do not have ovaries for egg production and the results of their egg laying are not encouraging, for they do not contain sperm and can produce only male offspring. Without a queen, all members of the colony are doomed. "She is the most limited and least versatile individual in the community, but she is also the cohesive force: without her, the orderly functioning of the colony falls into chaos and disintegration."

 The society of bees is indeed a hierarchical one, but one which is based - like an ancient caste system - upon total interdependence. The queen seems to have the power of determining whether the eggs she lays will be those of female workers or male drones. As the egg passes through her vaginal canal, she usually fertilizes it to produce a worker offspring or a potential queen. The number of drones is in part suggested to her by the slightly larger hexagonal cells built by the workers. It seems that the only purpose to their short lives is to fertilize the queen, and it is characteristic of the prolific abundance of Nature that the queen produces a thousand drones to ensure that five of them will live long enough to mate with the future monarch. Early in the seventeenth century the Reverend Charles Butler wrote that "The Drone which is a gross hive-bee without sting, hath been alwaies reputed for a sluggard, and that worthily: for howsoever he brave it with his round velvet cappe, his side gown, his great paunch, and his lowd voice, yet is he but an idle person living by the sweat of others' brows. For he worketh not at al, ether at home or abroad, and yet spendeth as much as two labourers; you shal never finde his maw without a good drop of the purest nectar." The larger eyes of the lazy drones seem to give them an innocent, almost bewildered appearance which makes their end doubly pathetic. For even if they do not die during the nuptial flight, and even if their louder buzzing does not attract devouring predators, they will be barred from re-entrance to the hive by their stern sister workers who know that the coming winter will not permit the feeding of useless mouths. It is the worker, whose every part is like a precision tool adapted to several highly specialized tasks, who seems to understand the overall forces affecting the perpetuation of the colony, and who will act with an astounding sense of purpose to ensure its life. Next to her, the queen and the drone are truly like catalysts in this incredibly complex generational pattern whose end product is honey and hexagonally patterned wax cells.

In its Unity, primordial light is the seventh, or highest, principle, Daivi-prakriti, the light of the unmanifested Logos. But in its differentiation it becomes Fohat, or the 'Seven Sons.' The former is symbolised by the Central point in the double-Triangle; the latter by the hexagon itself, or the 'six-limbs' of the Microprosopus, the Seventh being Malkuth, the 'Bride' of the Christian Kabalists, or our Earth.

The Secret Doctrine

 The great mystery of the bee lies partly in the One Triad of Mother, Fertilizing Father-Son, and Daughter and in the hexagonal pattern which they, cooperating together, produce. In The Secret Doctrine one learns that the six-pointed star or hexagon is, at its highest level, a symbol of the Logos as First Emanation; the First Heavenly Man. It is the symbol of Vishnu - poised like the blue bee over the opening flower. In this First Heavenly Adam lies the unmanifested spirit of the universe which will precipitate as the six powers of nature. It is held within the sap of the World Tree during the long winter when all the buzzing of life has ceased. Its emanating hexaploid force can be synthesized in the Cosmic Virgin - the Sephira - the Great Mother of all religions. On the plane of differentiated nature she is the female counterpart of Adam Kadmon - the First Androgyne. She, like the queen bee, rests at the centre of the 'six limbs' of the Microprosopus - that which was the Triad, then the Tetraktis, and is now the six-faced cube on earth. As the Kabalists put it: "the 'Ancient of Days,' descending on Adam Kadmon whom he uses as his vehicle to manifest through, gets transformed into Tetragrammaton. It is now in the 'Lap of Maya,' the Great Illusion . . ." The queen in her six-sided cell, surrounded by six cells of six, emerges and lays the basis for the continuance of this generational illusion which describes a perfectly ordered pattern. This repetitive pattern focusses attention upon the central six-pointed symbol which holds a key to understanding the mystery of Kwan-Yin, who is the Mother, the Wife and the Daughter of the Logos, whose light provides the link between spirit and matter.

Evolution is commenced by the intellectual energy of the Logos, not merely on account of the potentialities locked up in Mulaprakriti. This light of the Logos is the link between objective matter and the subjective thought of Iswara (or Logos). It is called in several Buddhist books Fohat. It is the one instrument with which the Logos works.

The Secret Doctrine

 Kwan-Yin is called 'the Divine Voice', a synonym for the Verbum or Word. The symbolical connection between this and the milk of the Cosmic Cow of Plenty corresponds also to the busy sound of bees as they produce the flow of honey that runs with the rivers of milk in the Promised Land. In reflecting upon the activity of bees, one discerns the keen intelligence which manifests through the energetic industry of the worker, and this helps us to see in it an active manifestation of spirit. The potentialities locked up in Mulaprakriti lie like the eggs within the queen bee and the pollen within the flower. They require the electric energy of the androgynous Spirit to quicken them. The worker bee, like Fohat, streaks from particle to particle, from blossom to blossom, taking from them their divine essence and awakening them to generation. In archetypal fashion the ancient teachings describe how "The Central Sun causes Fohat to collect primordial dust in the form of balls, to impel them to move in converging lines and finally to approach each other and aggregate." Within the bee the essential nectar collected is subtly changed to become the thicker and more powerful substance that sustains the life of the entire microcosm within the hive. Like the golden light of the Logos which links spirit and form, the clear amber of honey links the intelligence of the worker bee to its generational progeny which will manifest through the matrix of the Mother Queen.

 The hexagonal pattern faithfully fashioned over and over again is formed of wax which acts as a stationary record of the universal activities of the small-scale Logoic worker. Out of the glands of its body, from the 'primordial dust' it collects, wax is produced and fashioned into this geometry alone. Its pattern holds the honey, the brood-food for the colony, the eggs and the just emerging bodies of the struggling new generation of bees. Man, ever busy and watchful, has also understood the value of this substance and used it equally as a record. Some of the first writing tablets and cylinder seals were made of beeswax, and like the Lipika, man left his mark upon wax even as masks moulded upon his lifeless face. On a grand and cosmic scale, "it is the Lipika who project into objectivity from the passive Universal Mind the ideal plan of the universe, upon which the 'Builders' reconstruct the Kosmos after every Pralaya . . ." Man with his free will often records the ephemeral and personal, but the builder bee fashions only the one ideal form which describes the divine work of the Manifested Logos. In the honeycomb of the bee lies the symbol of Its Eternal Record. W. Q. Judge wrote that the instinct of a bee building a cell on the rules of geometry is an effect of reincarnation acting intelligently and has to do with knowledge learned in the past. In The Ocean of Theosophy, astral prototypes from preceding Rounds which solidified in this Round are mentioned. W. Q. Judge cryptically remarks that "neither the bee nor the wheat could have had their original differentiation in this chain of globes, but must have been produced and finished in some other from which they were brought over into this". This would suggest that the main work of the bee symbolizes an exceedingly ethereal level of manifestation involving the subtle sheath of Akasa, the sixth principle of Buddhi on a cosmic scale. The intelligent record of this seems to have been carried forth into form and action by the honey-bee, to be endlessly recapitulated on our own chain of globes. The beauty of the bee is that it lubricates the whole process with Amrita, the honey-waters of immortality, bringing forth the divine essence of the gods into the work. Thus the swarm of souls in a manvantara perpetuate themselves, seeking to hold and augment the nectar of heavenly wisdom.

 The profound symbolism enacted in the life cycle of a society of bees helps the intuitive to inquire into the meaning and purpose of life and form. The wealth of nectar is not merely to be stored, but used constantly as the soul takes on form after form in the company of all its fellow souls. Wise and beautiful is the teaching of Krishna to Uddhava in the Bhagavata Purana:

Learn from these facets of Nature: though trampled on by all, be firm in your adversity like the earth itself; from these mountains which hold their mineral and other resources for the welfare of the world, learn that you must live for others and not for yourself; like the wind, you must be able to pass through unhindered; all-pervasive, touching everything, yet itself untouched, the sky is verily the shining paradigm of the Yogin; you should be limpid, pure, purifying, pleasing and refreshing like water; effulgent with the lustre of wisdom like the fire that reduces to ashes all impurity; like the python, lie still and take only what comes to you, and when nothing comes, fast as the python does; like the sea, deep and unfathomable, neither be swollen by what flows into you nor be depleted by what is withdrawn from you; like the bee, take in little by little, and from good and bad alike, extract the essence even as the bee gathers honey.

 The form of the drone is splendid and dies painfully, but the collective soul within it goes on and ever reflects the fructifying principle of spirit. Every member of a colony of bees lives out its role, and those forms that fail in it are vacated by the Logoic intelligence. In good and bad season, in times of fasting or wealth, this cosmic force seeks to extract the essence through its swarming agents, and man can do no better than to emulate its Higher Will. We have many lives to live and we live them in the company of other souls. Let us reject those elements of our natures that refuse to cooperate in the main work of collecting the Nectar of Immortality. Let us strive, as Krishna taught, to make our lives sweet, our words like honey balm upon the wounds of the world. Let us give forth our 'queenly substance' so that others may fly forth to gather the Waters of Life. Let us extract the essence on behalf of all.

I pay homage to thee,
O small winged guide;
For thy true and faithful work
Leads my hungry soul home
To the Land of Milk and Honey.

When Solomon gives the exhortation, "Eat honey, my son, that it may be sweet to thy palate", he uses honey figuratively, meaning divine doctrine, which restores the spiritual knowledge of the soul.


For so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds;
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor:
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-ey'd justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o'er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.

William Shakespeare

We are working for a God just as a bee, without knowing it, is making honey for man.