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 ígitur noctis grátia, súscipe, sancte Pater,
laudis huius sacrifícium vespertínum,
quod tibi in hac cérei oblatióne solémni,
per ministrórum manus
de opéribus apum, sacrosáncta reddit Ecclésia.
Sed iam colúmnæ huius præcónia nóvimus,
quam in honórem Dei rútilans ignis accéndit.
Qui, lícet sit divísus in partes,
mutuáti tamen lúminis detrimenta non novit.
Alitur enim liquántibus ceris,
quas in substántiam pretiósæ huius lámpadis
apis mater edúxit.
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.
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.