Most of mankind’s noble endeavors have a patron saint, a man or woman who lived a long time ago and achieved notoriety often by torture and death. St. Barbara, for example, lived in Egypt in the fourth century AD and was decapitated
by her father when she refused to denounce Christianity, after which daddy, sword and all, was laid waste by a bolt of lightening. Barbara, naturally, became the patron saint of explosions involving gun powder, of which, in the early days of firearms,
there were many, presumably keeping her very busy.
A century earlier, also in Egypt, a mob seized Apollonia because of her position as a Christian Deaconess. She was tortured, had all her teeth pulled out one by one with pincers,
and when given the choice of renouncing her faith or being burned alive, leapt into the fire and was burnt to death. Predictably she is the patron saint of dentistry.
I will never be a candidate for sainthood,
either willingly or unwillingly, even if bees are frequently associated with such posthumous honors. In C15th Italy, for example, the day after baby Rita was baptized her family noticed a swarm of white bees flying around her as she slept in her crib.
The bees peacefully entered and exited her mouth without causing either harm or injury, which left her family understandably mystified. This did not prevent them for arranging her marriage to an abusive nobleman when she was 12 years old.
St. Rita is the patron saint of impossible causes.
Beekeepers have several saints to watch over us and to whom we can appeal. The legend in Milan, Italy, is that in the 3rd
century, when Ambrose was an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he was lying in his cradle and rather than stinging him, they left behind a drop of honey. His father declared this to be a sign that Ambrose would become a sweet-tongued preacher
of great significance; indeed he was to gain the title “Honey Tongued Doctor” because of his speaking and preaching ability and bees and a beehive became his symbols. Perhaps it was from this that bees are often associated with
wisdom and learning.
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes him as having an “enthusiastic love of virginity which became his distinguishing trait.” Indeed he wrote, .” Let, then,
your work be as it were a honeycomb, for virginity is fit to be compared to bees, so laborious is it, so modest, so continent. The bee feeds on dew, it knows no marriage couch, it makes honey….”
was at a time when the mating procedure of the ‘king bee’ (as the queen was known) was unknown. Indeed baby bees seemed to be the result of some form of mysterious virgin birth, which gave them a spiritual significance.
At the time it was believed that bees were the smallest of birds, born either from the bodies of oxen or from the decaying flesh of slaughtered calves in the form of worms which formed in the flesh and turned into bees.
Ambrose is also the patron of candle makers, chandlers, domestic animals, learning, school children, wax melters, wax refiners, but not virgins, and unlike many of his fellow saints, died peacefully in his old age.
in eastern Europe, there are many beautifully carved life sized hives in the shape of St. Ambrose, with a cavity in the middle for the bees, entrances via a small hole in the front, and access via a door in the back. Brightly painted, they formed an
inviting avenue as one approached the venue for Apimondia in Montpellier, France, in 2009.
Gobnait, by comparison, was born in County Clare, Ireland, sometime in the 5th or 6th century. Gobnait is Irish for Abigail
(meaning “Brings Joy”) and has been anglicized as Deborah, meaning “Honey Bee.”
One of the miracles attributed to Saint Gobnait was that she protected a parish by unleashing a swarm of bees, and she
was known for her care of the sick, using the properties of honey in the treatment of illness and the healing of wounds. She founded a convent and was reputed to be a skilled bee-keeper and, according to local tradition and history, she cured the
ailments of her own monastic community and the people of West Cork. Reputedly she kept a terrible plague away from Coolea and Ballyvourney and changed a colony of bees into an army to drive away a local marauding chieftain. Now there’s a talent
I could use.
Interestingly, on the island of Mont St. Michel off of the west coast of Ireland, the small stone huts in which monks lived for several hundreds of years while vandals invaded Britain, were build in
the shape of skeps. I was able to visit them some years ago and it is one of those places that makes the hairs on the nape of one’s neck stand on end.
Other saints are well represented. In France, Saint
Bernard of Clairvaux, a C12th abbot, is listed as a patron of beekeeping and workers of wax, again for no apparent reason. Maybe he just wanted a candle discount. St. Gregory was responsible for opening the flowers on 12th March and a few weeks
later, on 21st March, St. Benedict summoned the bees to search for nectar. According to legend, St. Bartholomew was martyred by being flayed alive and because of this fate he became the patron saint of tanners. But for many Brits he is also patron saint of
beekeepers, probably because his feast day, 24th August, coincides with the gathering of the honey crop. Indeed, until the 1950s, the village of Gulval in Cornwall celebrated St. Bartholomew’s Day with a ceremony for Blessing the Mead, while the annual
St. Bartholomew’s Fair in London was famous for its honey-coated apples.
The Catholic Church has strong links with bees. The monks were fine beekeepers, providing honey for sweetening, especially to make herbal
remedies more palatable, wax for smokeless candles for the altar, mead for communion wine, and propoplis for use in the sanatorium. The late Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey is one such example.
And bees were believed
to be the souls of the dead returning to earth or on their way to the next world. This probably led to the widespread custom of “telling the bees” when the beekeeper died, a tradition that was prevalent in Pennsylvania. If the bees were
not asked to stay with their new master or mistress it was believed that they would abscond.
Beekeepeers seem to have as many patron saints as they do answers to questions concerning the bees.