The Pope’s half million bees have a lesson for us all

Bees are carved at the base of columns by the High Altar at St Peter's Basilica (Photo: CNS)

I think my favourite recent story, the one that has cheered me up the most in the last few weeks, was the one about the Pope’s bees. Here it is:


VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 21, 2011 ( What is the proper gift for a Pope on the Day for the Protection of Creation? According to the Italian agricultural group Coldiretti, it’s about a half million bees.

Italy’s largest farming association gave Benedict XVI eight beehives containing more than 500,000 bees last Sunday.

The beehives will be kept at the pontifical farm of Castel Gandolfo, where they will be used in pollination and the production of honey (some 617 pounds a year).

Coldiretti explained that bees “play a vital role in the planet’s ecosystem and their disappearance would have disastrous consequences for health and the environment; a third of human food production depends on crops pollinated by insects, 80% percent of which are bees.”

The “Campagna Amica” Association will provide technical assistance to the pontifical farms to oversee the protection of the bees and the production of honey.

Bees, in both ancient times and in more recent centuries, have always had around them a powerful symbolic aura. They are, of course, associated with the popes, if for no other reason than that the High Altar of St Peter’s (at which only the Pope may officiate) is surmounted by Bernini’s majestic baldacchino, which, as the St Peter’s official guide puts it, “stands on four pedestals of marble on which in the papal escutcheons a wonderful sequence … is carved, liberally scattered with the heraldic bees of the Barberini to whose family Pope Urban VIII belonged. It was he who had commissioned Bernini to make this canopy in 1624.”

But ever since ancient times, bees have been seen as symbolic, both of human society and, more deeply, of growth and of plenty. This last meaning has become worryingly relevant in recent years with the growing threat to the environment (by which I do not mean “anthropogenic CO2”. CO2 is not pollution; it’s a clean and breathable gas which is no threat to the bees). The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy was one of the writers asked to write something as part of a global warming propaganda barrage the Guardian was organising in preparation for the 2009 Copenhagen global warming conference (which failed, giving been torpedoed by the “Climategate” scandal). She ignored global warning, homing in at a more profound level on what the Church now draws attention to on the Day for the Protection of Creation, by writing a very splendid poem about this ancient creature, entitled “Virgil’s Bees”:

Bless air’s gift of sweetness, honey
from the bees, inspired by clover,
marigold, eucalyptus, thyme,
the hundred perfumes of the wind.

Bless the beekeeper
who chooses for her hives
a site near water, violet beds, no yew,
no echo. Let the light lilt, leak, green
or gold, pigment for queens,
and joy be inexplicable but there
in harmony of willowherb and stream,
of summer heat and breeze,
each bee’s body
at its brilliant flower, lover-stunned,
strumming on fragrance, smitten.

For this,
let gardens grow, where beelines end,
sighing in roses, saffron blooms, buddleia;
where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
in pear trees, plum trees; bees
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.

A community of honey bees has often been employed by political theorists as a model of human society. This metaphor occurs in Aristotle and Plato; in Virgil and Seneca; much later, in Erasmus and Shakespeare. Tolstoy compares human society to a community of bees in War and Peace.

Here’s Virgil (whose bees Carol Ann Duffy recalls); the Georgics (Book IV) has an extended passage on the bees, the freshness and vigour of which comes over to us, even in the rather plodding prose translation from which I offer just a short sample:

They alone have children in common, hold the dwellings of their city jointly, and pass their lives under the majesty of law. They alone know a fatherland and fixed home, and in summer, mindful of the winter to come, spend toilsome days and garner their gains into a common store. For some watch over the gatherings of food, and under fixed covenant labour in the fields; some, within the confines of their homes, lay down the narcissus’ tears and gluey gum from tree bark as the first foundation of the comb, then hang aloft clinging wax; others lead out the full-grown young, the nation’s hope; others pack purest honey, and swell the cells with liquid nectar. To some it has fallen by lot to be sentries at the gates, and in turn they watch the rains and clouds of heaven, or take the load of incomers, or in martial array drive the drones, a lazy herd, from the folds. All aglow is the work, and the fragrant honey is sweet with thyme …. The aged have charge of the towns, the building of the hives, the fashioning of the cunningly wrought houses. But the young betake them home in weariness, late at night, their thighs freighted with thyme; far and wide they feed on arbutus, on pale-green willows, on cassia and ruddy crocus, on the rich linden, and the dusky hyacinth.

There’s no doubt that nearly all cultures have felt a very close empathy with this industrious creature, so benign in its activity, stinging only when it is attacked, so unlike the horrible and barren wasp for which it can be briefly mistaken until we observe its reassuringly rounded form and hear its comforting low-pitched drone, quite unlike the aggressive angry threatening tone of the wasp. The bee, above all, is absolutely necessary to our own wellbeing, since (according to the Italian farming association Coldiretti which gave the Pope his bees) a third of human food production depends on crops pollinated by insects, 80 per cent of which are bees. So let us pray for the success of the new bee colony at the Pope’s model farm at Castel Gandolfo, and above all for the survival of the bee everywhere.

This is, incidentally, something we can all encourage, it seems, by planting pollen-rich plants. This includes, I am told, the single-flowered rose family, crab apple, hawthorn and potentilla and the flowers of fennel, angelica, cow parsley, and sedums (whatever they are). They also like tubular-shaped flowers, such as foxgloves, snapdragons, penstemons and heathers. It’s apparently (I speak as a fool) important to provide flowers throughout the bee’s life-cycle, from March to September, and we should have at least two nectar- or pollen-rich plants in flower at any one time during this period, since nectar feeds the adult bee, and pollen is collected to feed the young.

We must have been doing something right in our garden, since we have had bees all summer (nearly always two or three of them buzzing around); they were particularly attentive to our two apple trees when the blossom came out this spring. My wife points out that one reason for our own garden’s bee-friendliness is that she never uses pesticides (pesticides that are sprayed on are apparently particularly deadly to bees, so lay off them).

It really does look as though we don’t actually have to accept, fatalistically, the current decline in the bee population. Like so many man-made evils, we caused it, and we can undo it.

But will we?