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The Exsultet or Exultet is a beautiful Latin hymn for the Easter vigil. There are a few different versions. Part of the ceremony involves lighting the Paschal candle, and the text thanks the bees who produced the wax:

Alitur enim liquantibus ceris, quas in substantiam pretiosiae huius lampadis apis mater eduxit.

For [the candle] is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.1

The candle is also called "the work of bees and of your servants' hands" in another part of the text.

Of course it is nice to recognize the contribution of the bees. But this feels like a bit of a digression in a hymn which is otherwise all about God. Is there some reason why bees are specifically mentioned?

1. English rendering from the International Commission for English in the Liturgy, 2010.

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Could have sworn there was another question on the site where I had to look this up, but the columns over the tomb of St. Peter are bees as well but apparently those are just a familial symbol for Pope Urban VIII. –  Peter Turner Jun 18 '13 at 16:02
    
@PeterTurner Bees have come up before. I can't remember the context either. –  Caleb Jun 18 '13 at 16:21
    
There is a question of your own about beehive imagery in the LDS church, which probably has some overlap, if only because there is scripture and general cultural heritage in common. –  James T Jun 18 '13 at 16:28
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1 Answer

The bee represents Mary, the mother of Jesus. (In fact, it's a fairly safe bet that just about anything represents Jesus or Mary or both.) Other versions of the Exultet text make this explicit; the "Franco-Roman version" has a long we-love-bees section, as recorded by Thomas Forrest Kelley in his The Exultet in Southern Italy (OUP, 1996), p38, concluding with:

O vere mirabilis apis cuius nec sexum masculi violant, fetus non quassat nec filii destruunt castitatem. Sicut sancta concepit virgo Maria, virgo peperit et virgo permansit.

O truly marvelous bee, whose sex is not violated by the male, nor shattered by childbearing, neither do children destroy her chastity. Just as holy Mary conceived as a virgin, gave birth as a virgin, and remained a virgin.

This alludes to the old belief that bees reproduced asexually. Isidore reports in Etymologiae 12.8 that bees, like other small flying animals, are spontaneously generated from the carcasses of animals. So also, Augustine says in City of God 15.27 that bees have no distinction of male and female (alia vero in quibus nihil sit maris et feminae, sicut apes). This comes from ancient sources: Pliny in Natural History 11.16 suggests that they might weave their young out of parts of flowers; and Aristotle (On the generation of animals 2.10) says they are hermaphrodites, and do not copulate with one another.

We now know that they really couldn't have been more wrong, but the sentiment is there.

We have several copies of "Exultet rolls" which have bee illustrations to accompany the vigil text, indicating the great interest and respect that people had for them. Here is an eleventh century one, from Bari (Archivio del Capitolo Metropolitano, Exultet 1).

Bari Exultet roll, 11th C.

Bees were an example of industry, and esteemed because they provided so many useful things - in particular, honey and light (via the candle). Both honey and light have obvious Biblical resonances. Additionally, gifted orators and writers were said to have a "honeyed tongue", and so some saints may be depicted with accompanying bees (e.g. Ambrose, Anthony of Padua, Bernard of Clairvaux, Isidore of Seville).

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Nice self answer. I'm a beekeeper. Actually, they were close with the chastity thing. An unmated queen can lay a viable drone (male) egg. Even the mated queen lays unfertilized eggs to produce drones. Workers (females) all come from fertilized eggs. –  fredsbend Jun 18 '13 at 16:08
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@fredsbend - their speculation is really a lot of fun; they basically admit, "we have no clue where new bees come from, but here's twenty different theories anyway". But all are united in agreeing that bees are the most excellent and useful of animals, and honey is tasty :-) –  James T Jun 18 '13 at 16:24
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Yes, indeed. Ancient people's came up with some strange things, yet at the same time, they were sometimes so accurate. Bees literally never stop working, and never work for themselves, but rather the hive. Honey was highly valued until about mid 1800's when modern beekeeping was invented (by a preacher no less). –  fredsbend Jun 18 '13 at 16:28
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