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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, 2013 at 16:02
  • @PeterTurner Bees have come up before. I can't remember the context either.
    – Caleb
    Jun 18, 2013 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, 2013 at 16:28
  • It's because Easter is the bees' knees.
    – jaredad7
    Apr 12, 2022 at 18:31
  • đŸ€ŁđŸ€ŁđŸ€Ł Oops 9 more letters to go
.
    – user56152
    Apr 13, 2022 at 19:44

2 Answers 2

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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.
    – user3961
    Jun 18, 2013 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, 2013 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).
    – user3961
    Jun 18, 2013 at 16:28
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Why is the Exsultet so keen on bees?

The Exsultet, also known as the Easter Proclamation is a lengthy sung proclamation delivered before the paschal candle, ideally by a deacon, during the Easter Vigil in the Roman Rite of Mass. In the absence of a deacon, it may be sung by a priest or by a cantor.

In huius Ă­gitur noctis grĂĄtia, sĂșscipe, sancte Pater, laudis huius sacrifĂ­cium vespertĂ­num, quod tibi in hac cĂ©rei oblatiĂłne solĂ©mni, per ministrĂłrum manus de opĂ©ribus apum, sacrosĂĄncta reddit EcclĂ©sia.

Sed iam colĂșmnĂŠ huius prĂŠcĂłnia nĂłvimus, quam in honĂłrem Dei rĂștilans ignis accĂ©ndit. Qui, lĂ­cet sit divĂ­sus in partes, mutuĂĄti tamen lĂșminis detrimenta non novit.

Alitur enim liquĂĄntibus ceris, quas in substĂĄntiam pretiĂłsĂŠ huius lĂĄmpadis apis mater edĂșxit.

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants' hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.

But now we know the praises of this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God's honour, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for it is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.

Exsultet

In Medieval times, it was thought that the bees 🐝 that made honey were mother bees (female bees). The drones are male bees. In fact, both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas called the queen bee the king bee. The king bee became the queen much later, when man understood that that she was laying eggs.

Although the symbolism of bees within the Exsultet may refer to the Virgin Mary. It’s primary symbolism to to be considered the Church.

I later found a text of St. John Chrysostom in which he in some way confirmed that explanation when he wrote: "The bee is more honored than other animals, not because it labors, but because it labors for others" (12th Homily). So, I realized that the bees, like the clergy and religious men and women in the Church, work unceasingly for the common good of the hive and obey without question their superiors, and above all their queen.

The bee is also a symbol of wisdom, for it collects nectar from many flowers and turns it into nourishing and pleasing honey, which is the 'gold' of bees. We should do the same, take whatever we can and transform it through our labor into a superior element useful for us and our neighbour.

The symbolism of bees also signifies the way the Church generates her spiritual fruits because bees are virginal, they don't have any sexual contact. As the Church gives grace through the purity of her divine Sacraments, so the bees give us honey and wax by the labor of their pure bodies. This is why their wax, considered the fruit of a virgin labor, is worthy to burn in the candles on the altar at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice.

The honey, so agreeable to the palate, is symbolic of spiritual sweetness and religious eloquence. For this reason, the beehive is emblematic of St. Ambrose and of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, two Doctors whom the Church calls mellifluus and mellificuus, that is, with an eloquence as suave and “sweet as honey.”

The symbolism goes on regarding the Church. Indeed, the bees work without rest and give their lives without hesitation for the good of the hive. They are instantly and vigorously militant against enemies of the hive. Not only the hive, but the honey, upon which their lives depend, is also vigorously protected. When endangered by heat, they cling to the outside of the hive and beat their wings relentlessly to cool the hive and keep the honey from melting. Many bees die when this happens.

This is a marvelous and unique natural phenomenon that signifies other marvelous and unique phenomena of the Catholic Church: her militant members, her apologists and her martyrs. They gave their lives for the good of the Church, and their blood became the seed for vibrant growth, as happened many times in History.

The bees’ survival depends upon a queen and their unquestioning obedience and loyalty to her, just as we are all absolutely dependent upon Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven, for our eternal salvation and our protection from the world, the flesh and the devil.

Bees instinctively observe such a tremendous reverence for their authority that none dare leave the hive to swarm in other pastures unless the queen has gone forth in front of them and claimed the first rank of flight for herself. The ever-vigilant bees guard their queen and hive - as we should guard Our Queen and our Church - to the ultimate price, and instinctively consider it a duty to die for them.

Finally, perhaps you noticed, the natural beehive is shaped similarly to a traditional Tabernacle!

The Bee, A Symbol of the Church

In the columns of the Altar of the Confession in St. Peter's Basilica one finds bees among the leaves and flowers.

In the columns of the Altar of the Confession in St. Peter's Basilica one finds bees among the leaves and flowers.

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