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From rock carvings to rock music – the prevalence of bees in art throughout human history

With a looming biodiversity crisis and concerns over food security and sustainability, bees are frequently in the news.

The importance of bees in our society as pollinators and producers of honey seems to have led to their growing popularity in many artistic pursuits, such as film, social media, games, and contemporary art.

Is this new fascination with bees a recent phenomenon? In our new study, we explored how bees are depicted across different cultures, time periods, and artistic mediums.

Their depiction in art would tell us how people in different eras perceived bees, which we have also found has led to bees being an inspiration for different forms of art.

Modern graffiti bee art shown in a photo by Louis Masai and Jim Vision. Images provided by the authors.

The art of bees through time and cultures

Bees have been depicted in carvings, jewelry, coins, songs, tools, and carvings for thousands of years. One of the earliest known depictions of bees comes in the form of rock art from 8000 BCE in the Spider Caves (Cuevas de la araña) in Spain. It shows a person climbing a ladder to collect honey from a beehive.

Bees of the ancient world are depicted in a) rock art and in bc) hieroglyphs of ancient Egyptian names and architecture. Image by Jair Garcia. Reproduced under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

We have examined the history of bees in the culture and art of China, Central America, South America and Australia. Centuries before the introduction of European bees, human societies in Central and South America had a close relationship with native stingless bees (Meliponini).

Advanced agricultural societies like the Maya developed beekeeping techniques (the raising and care of bees for commercial or agricultural purposes) and kept native bees in their homes. Some gods in their pantheon were enshrined as protectors of beehives, while others were often depicted in postures resembling landing bees in carvings adorning temples.

Indigenous stingless bees in the Mayan culture
Stingless bees in the Mayan culture.
Image a by Dr Enrich Legner reproduced under creative commons 4.0 license

While Chinese art has a long history of depicting plants, it was during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that bees began to be depicted in poetry and painting, when formal beekeeping and the use of bee products in traditional medicine has increased.

Prior to the Tang dynasty, bees were viewed with suspicion due to some bees’ ability to sting, revealing how a positive aesthetic representation of bees developed with a greater understanding of the value of bees to our environment and well-being. to be.

The sounds of bees in art culture and music

The buzzes and signals emitted by bees have intrigued humans for centuries. Indeed, the “drone” style of music popularized by the Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows takes its name from Old English words representing male bees.

By ear, ancient instruments like the Australian First Nations didgeridoo, Scottish bagpipes and Indian tanpura sound like the rich, haunting sound of bee drones, and ethnic communities in southwest China have made special bee drums to celebrate cultural ties to bees.

Bee-inspired music and songs vary to accommodate the wide variety of experiences and emotions that humans attempt to convey. In 17th century Britain, Charles Butler composed the angelic Melissomelos from his pointed observations of the “voices” of bees and their societal structure.

In popular music, bees have been called upon to express human emotions and explore musical dynamics and mastery.

Today, co-species collaborations like music group Be’s “Into” directly use the sounds of bees to showcase new ways of making music, while promoting the plight of valuable providers.

Bees and architecture

Bees are among nature’s best architects. The hexagonal structures of bee hives have inspired building design and architecture around the world, as well as futuristic designs for Mars. These bee-inspired buildings manifest across time and cultures and represent different design goals. In some cases, bee-inspired architecture forms the most stable and efficient structures.

Other buildings aim to underline the importance of bees for humans. For example, the New Zealand parliament’s “hive” building pays homage to the efficiency and cooperation of bees, and the experimental architecture of The Hive, which is a 14-metre aluminum lattice cuboid built to attract attention to the decline of bees. Modern designs such as these reflect the perceived value of living or working like bees.

Skep hive, a classic. design inspiring humans for over 2,000 years. Wikimedia Commons

Bees in movies and video games

Bees are increasingly depicted in film culture for both entertainment and environmental messaging, as in Bee Movie (2007). In the global gaming phenomenon, Pokémon, the designs of a number of imaginary creatures are based on bees, such as the female Combees who collect resources for their colony.

Minecraft allows players to create bees and interact in an open world environment. Image by Amelie Dyer. Creative Commons.

Our work reveals that bees have long played an important role in human society as pollinators, sources of nutrition as well as artistic inspirations and muses.

However, as many bee species are no longer as common in the environment as they once were, there has never been a more important time to understand and communicate about bees.