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Arcadia University Senior Thesis

Completed in May 2023 to complete my Bachelor's Degree in Studio Art. Displayed for one week at Arcadia's Senior Thesis Exhibition in 2023.

Colored pencil illustration of the Rusty Patched Bumblebee

Freeman. Rusty Patched Bumblebee. 2022.

A wild bee nest hanging from a tree branch

Vickbird. Empty Nest. 2015.

The Soul Bee

There are an overwhelming number of references to bees as symbols of the soul throughout history. The ancient Egyptians believed that a man possessed a ka, or double, who had to be fed after death in a funerary ceremony, one of which describes the dead’s soul “Going about as a bee”¹⁴. There is a pre-Christian belief that bees could make sense of death because they were human souls, which developed into the European tradition of “telling” the bees in the event of a death in the family, or else the bees will bring misfortune, swarm away, or even sting the dead spirit¹⁹. The bee also symbolizes the soul that flies away from the body in the Siberian, Central Asian, and South American traditions⁷.

The ancient Greeks considered bees “the birds of muse”, and also considered them to be souls of the dead in transit to or from death and the next world⁶. According to the Greeks, “the bee was a chthonian animal, or one relating to the underworld - a creature which could somehow carry personality from the world of the living to the world of the dead’’, the disembodied souls of humans using the bodies of bees to move about the heavens¹⁹.

The third-century Greek author Porphyry says that the soul comes down from the moon goddess Artemis in the form of bees, which are called melissae, but they are also sometimes identified with Demeter, the goddess of the earth and crops, who represented the soul sent to hell¹⁹,⁷.

A photo of a bee gathering pollen from an Azalea flower

Freeman. 2020.

Like Honey to Bees
Humanity's Oldest Friend

“The bee is more honored than animals not because she labors but because she labors for others.”
- St. John Chrysostom (circa 400)

Bees Before Flowers
The oldest known fossil of a bee is the amber-encased, wasp-like Melittosphex burmensis, discovered in a northern Burma mine in 2006⁷. It is less than 1/8th inch long, but this little insect confirms that the ancestors of our modern bees probably appeared in the Cretaceous period, about 145-66 million years ago⁷, ²¹. Before the herbivorous bee had flowers, their ancestral carnivorous wasp existed in the Jurassic period, about 201- 145 million years ago⁴, ²¹. The instinct to nest that developed in honeybees from their wasp ancestors makes them one of the most complex insect societies⁷. Flowers and bees have evolved together for over 100 million years, and it was relatively recently that humans joined the equation⁷.

Why bees?
Because they matter to us as humans.
They always have.
Here’s the proof.

Bees and honey are featured throughout many ancient cultures’ histories, myths, and philosophies all over the world. Dating back to the dawn of human history, spiritual rock art by the San of southern Africa shows images of bees and their nests which suggest that bees had a special importance to humans since the Stone Age⁷. Bees’ nests are usually tucked away in hidden cavities or trees for shelter and protection, making honey gathering a dangerous task for the first hunter-gatherer communities to attempt it in southern Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe during the Stone Age⁷. This challenging hunt is depicted in rock art, the oldest of which is from the Mesolithic era and known as the Cave of the Spider, near Valencia in eastern Spain⁷.
Honey is now largely obtained from kept bees, which developed hand in hand with the growth of agriculture⁷. As humans began to settle year-round in a single location around 8000 BC, most markedly in the Fertile Crescent, bees became even more important to humans than before⁷. Ancient Egypt developed the earliest form of organized beekeeping, taking advantage of the rich soil along the Nile delta plain to plant crops and wild flowers which produced nectar ideal for bees⁷. The earliest evidence of Egypt’s organized honey industry comes from a remarkably detailed stone bas-relief of pipe-shaped hives, found in 1900 in the Temple of the Sun in Abu Gurab in Lower Egypt, and dates to around 2400 BC⁷.

Digital illustration of a transparent girl surrounded by bees and flowers in soft lighting

The Soul Bee, thesis art #1

According to an old Germanic myth, children were dipped into the well of Holde; Holde or Helle was the leader of the underground spirits¹⁴. An Alsatian myth represents her well as a “beautiful stone well lying in a meadow; out of it flowed milk instead of water, and round it bloomed great flowers which were full of honey, and with which the unborn children were quietened. The souls of the unborn are also connected with crickets (Heimchen). Originally the name Heimchen was not used for crickets but for bees, and the unborn souls were conducted by Mother Perchta from her heavenly home to the earthly world of the body”¹⁴.

In my drawing, I chose to portray a soul visiting the earth in the guise of a bee in spring time. Her spirit form basks in the life-giving sunshine, and bees and flowers surround her in a celebratory dance.

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