A Sudden Wonder: Bees Buzzing

Written by Dr Laura-Maria Popoviciu |

Between 18 and 27 July 2023, the Warburg Institute will host a new online course, ‘Of Honey, Heaven Sent: An Illustrated History of Bees,’ which will offer an introduction to the cultural significance of bees, from Antiquity through to the present day. Consisting of four sessions and taking an interdisciplinary approach, this course will look at ways in which bees have been represented, described, and understood in art, mythology, religion, and science.

In this blog post, course tutor, Dr Laura-Maria Popoviciu, outlines some of the themes and questions which will be explored in this course through a selection of artworks.

‘The honey-loving shepherd’

Fig. 1 Corolano Giovanni Battista, 'Scena allegorica con il pastore Aristeo e la ninfa sua madre. In onore del Card.?', etching, 1600-1649, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe

In Book IV of his Georgics, Virgil recounts the story of a shepherd named Aristaeus whose ‘famous invention’ became one of the founding myths which guided ancient beekeepers to recover their lost bees. One day, Virgil tells us, Aristaeus pursued Eurydice along a riverbank. In trying to escape the shepherd, the nymph was bitten by a snake and died. As a consequence of his reckless actions, all of Aristaeus’ bees contracted a mysterious illness and died. Inconsolable, he reached out to the prophetic sea god Proteus for advice. After performing a sacrificial ritual and asking for Orpheus’ forgiveness, Aristaeus witnesses a miracle: new bees emerge from the carcass of the dead animals. Coriolanus Giovanni Battista’s print (fig 1) captures this moment of transformation described by Virgil follows:

Here a sudden wonder appears, marvellous to tell,
Bees buzzing and swarming from the broken flanks
Among the liquefied flesh of the cattle 

The buzzing bees

Fig. 2 Cornelis Massys, 'The Story of Samson', hand-coloured engraving, 1549, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The spontaneous generation of bees from the carcass of an ox, also known as bugonia, has been a source of much debate among ancient and early modern writers, philosophers, and scientists alike.[2] While Aristotle, Columella, Pliny or Plutarch perpetuated the belief in this phenomenon, scientists attempted to resolve the mystery through experiments and dispel its mythological connotations. One in particular, the 17th-century founder of experimental biology, Francesco Redi, dismissed the validity of this theory in his Esperienze intorno alla generazione degl’insetti written in 1668. What is interesting is that he did so by referencing the biblical story of Samson.[3] Having killed a lion with his bare hands in a supernatural act of strength, Samson returned to the vineyards of Timnah to see the carcass of the lion, and behold, there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey.[4]

The ancient myth of bugonia thus finds new echoes and analogies in the context of the Old Testament and opens up new interpretations. Samson’s confrontation with the lion and the generation of new life in the form of bees, can be deciphered as a prefiguration of Christ’s death and his Resurrection.[5]

The nymphs and the swarm of bees

Fig. 3 Pietro da Cortona, Allegory of the House of Barberini, Grey brown wash, white lead, black chalk, pencil on white paper,1631, Prado Museum, Madrid
Fig. 3 Pietro da Cortona, 'Allegory of the House of Barberini', Grey brown wash, white lead, black chalk, pencil on white paper,1631, Prado Museum, Madrid | www.museodelprado.es

Another story which associates bees with afterlife and transformation is that of the nymphs Melissa and Florilla, illustrated in Giovanni Battista Ferrari’s De Florum Cultura of 1633 and the subsequent Italian edition of 1683 dedicated to his patron, cardinal Francesco Barberini (fig 3). The daughters of Heaven and Earth, Florilla and Melissa were transformed into flowers and a swarm of bees, respectively, to punish Apollo who had fallen in love with Melissa. Pietro da Cortona’s drawing and the subsequent print (fig 4) illustrate the metamorphosis of the nymph into a swarm of bees.[6] ‘Starting from her arms and legs’[7], Melissa becomes a multitude of ‘winged melisse’,[8] while the muses gathered around her to play a funeral song. The presence of the bees in Pietro da Cortona’s drawing, and especially the three larger bees grouped in a triangle in the centre of the swarm references the emblem of the Barberini family. The presence of this mythological story within the context of a botanical treaty was an ingenious solution which allowed Ferrari to pay homage to the Barberini family in an allegorical manner while expertly writing about the history of botany, as a horticultural adviser to the papal family.

Fig 4. Woodcut after Pietro da Cortona, in Giovanni Battista Ferrari, 'De Florum Cultura', Rome, 1633, The Metropolitan Museum, Ne

Noli me tangere

Fig. 5 Imitator of Andrea Mantegna, 'Noli me tangere', oil on wood, perhaps 1440-1550, The National Gallery, London

An interplay of gaze and an interrupted gesture are the two elements in the ‘Noli me tangere’ painting by an imitator of Andrea Mantegna (fig 5), which allow us to reposition ourselves in relation to the creation, the environment, and ultimately the history of salvation. Seeing the resurrected Christ as the ultimate gardener through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, indicates new life: fresh, unspoilt saplings spring from the ground, while new branches grow from a dead tree - all ready to receive the swarm of bees that are alert after their hibernation. Why is there a beehive depicted in this painting? How can we understand the mysteries of the Resurrection of Christ and that of nature in an interconnected way? For instance, when the deacon sings the Proclamation for Easter announcing Christ’s Resurrection, he lights the Paschal candle, a holy light that is nourished by the melting wax produced by the bee. According to King James Bible, after the return from Emmaus, the resurrected Christ asked the apostles: Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of broiled fish and of a honeycomb. And he took it and did eat it before them[9] (fig 6).

Fig. 6 'Jesus Christ Eating Fish and the Honeycomb', fresco, Grachanica Monastery
Fig. 7. Pier Francesco Mazzucchielli, The Holy Family with an Angel offering a Honeycomb to the Christ Child, oil painting on canvas Kedleston Hall, National Trust, © National Trust / Andrew Patterson


Is this the same honeycomb he ate as a child as prophesied by Isaiah? (fig 7): Butter and honey shall he eat.[10] And where does this honey come from? Some of these questions will be explored in more depth during the course.

> Book now for the short course 'Of Honey, Heaven Sent: An Illustrated History of Bees'





Dr Laura-Maria Popoviciu is an art historian, a researcher, and a curator at the UK Government Art Collection. In her curatorial approach, she is interested in making connections between historical and contemporary art and exploring ways in which art can support cultural diplomacy. She holds a doctorate in Italian Renaissance art and a Master's degree in Cultural and Intellectual History 1300-1650, from the Warburg Institute in London. Her academic achievements have been recognised through prestigious fellowships and grants. Her portfolio includes scholarly publications, teaching appointments, international conferences and curated exhibitions, audio and video podcasts.


[1] Virgil, Georgics, Book IV: 554-556, translated by A.S. Kline (accessed 20.05.2022)

[2] H. V. Harissis, ‘Aristaeus, Eurydice and the ox-born bee. An ancient educational beekeeping myth’ in Apiculture in Prehistoric Aegean. Minoan and Mycenaean Symbols Revisited, eds. H.V. Harissis and A. V. Harissis, British Arcaeological Reports, Archaeopress, Oxford, 2009

[3] Edward Reichman, ‘The Riddle of Samson and the Spontaneous Generation of Bees: The Bugonia Myth, the Crosspollination that Wasn’t, and the Heter for Honey That Might Have Been’, in Menachem Butler and Marian E. Frankston, eds., Essays for a Jewish Lifetime: Burton D. Morris Jubilee Volume, Hakirah Press, New York, 2012, 1-12.

[4] Judges 14:8 (NKJV)

[5] Carozza, Gianni Carozza. La parola è più dolce del miele. Le api e il miele nella Bibbia e nella tradizione Cristiana, Edizioni Messagero, Padua. 2019.

[6] Louise Rice, ‘V. Imprese di famiglia. Branding, Barberini-Style’ in, L’immagine sovrana. Urbano VIII e I Barberini, edited by Maurizia Cicconi, Flaminia Gennari Santori and Sebastian Schutze,  Officina Libraria, Roma. 2023, 258.

[7]Ibid: Percioche, cominciando dale mani, e da’piedi, prestamente si dileguo tutta in una sciame d’Api

[8] Giovanni Battista Ferrari, Flora, overo Cultura di Fiori, Pier’Ant Facciotti, Roma, Libro Quatro, 514: ‘alate melisse’

[9] Luke 24:41-43 (KJV)

[10] Isaiah 7:15 (NKJV)