Bees, Pesticides, and Orthodox Iconography

The decimation of honeybee populations in North America is in the news again in recent days, with further evidence of a likely link between their decline and manmade environmental factors. While technological developments in genetically engineered foods accelerate, one of the most basic aspects of agrarian life stretching back to biblical times is threatened. Famously, bees found in a lion’s body formed the riddle asked by Samson (quoting the Orthodox Study Bible): “What meat comes forth from the eater, and from the strong, sweetness?” (Judges 14:14) This contemplative riddle, matched with images of honey in the Psalms, evokes God’s commandments and teachings as its answer, among others.

Likewise bees have long been an important image in the Orthodox Church for the interconnecting communication of life in God’s Creation, as in St. Basil’s encouragement of young students to take the best from secular learning (and by extension perhaps from the physical world) and make it into spiritual honey:

“For just as bees know how to extract honey from flowers, which to men are agreeable only for their fragrance and color, even so here also those who look for something more than pleasure and enjoyment in such writers may derive profit for their souls. Now, then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest. And just as in culling roses we avoid the thorns, from such writings as these we will gather everything useful, and guard against the noxious. So, from the very beginning, we must examine each of their teachings, to harmonize it with our ultimate purpose, according to the Doric proverb, ‘testing each stone by the measuring-line.

There are many other examples of bee imagery in Orthodox traditions, including saints’ lives. Such imagery helps to shape a kind of iconography from Creation (like St. Basil’s honey-gathering) that forms an integral part of the Orthodox Christian heritage, and a reminder that the earth itself can be a kind of icon in its communicative relationships with the Creator and with human beings. “Good words are honeycombs, and the sweetness thereof is a healing of the soul” (Prov. 16:24). It’s worth considering the potential loss to future generations of such deep meaning, if the imagery of Creation, such as honeybees, disappears from our lives–and inseparably, with that loss of meaning, real physical and ecological costs as well.

This and other OFT blog posts represent personal reflections or links of information on Orthodoxy and the environment. They do not necessarily represent any official position or views of OFT or other Church organizations.