Land of Bees and Honey

“The only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey…
And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it.”
Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne

BEES are mentioned in the Bible only four times.

Three of those verses are about metaphorical bees. For example, in the first chapter of Deuteronomy (1: 43-44), Moses reminds the people, “You rebelled against the command of the LORD and went up into the hill country, and the Amorites who lived in that country came out against you and chased you as bees do.” The other two verses have a similar thrust to them. Metaphorically speaking, bees are an aggressive swarm – an attacking army.

(That’s how some of us experienced bees at last year’s Belchertown fair: as a hostile army, driving us away from our promised land of cotton candy and fried dough.)

The fourth Biblical reference to bees occurs in a story about Samson – you remember Samson, he was the really strong guy with the long hair and the unhealthy marriage – Samson kills a lion with his bare hands, and then some time later returns to site of his conquest, and he sees the carcass of the lion there, and he sees bees, nesting in the skeleton.

(I’m inclined to believe these are real bees, not metaphorical ones; the story just strikes me as too randomly weird to be an allegory.)

Samson grabs a handful of honey out of that skeleton, and shares it with his parents. Which brings me to another piece of Bible trivia: Bees are only mentioned four times in the Bible, but honey – honey is mentioned 58 times.

That’s a lot of honey.

In the book of Exodus, we are told that the manna in the wilderness tasted like honey. In the Song of Songs, the young lover tells his bride that her lips tastes like honey. In the gospels, we learn that John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey. And in the book of Proverbs, we are warned that eating too much honey can make a person throw up. Always practical, the book of Proverbs.

In the book of Psalms, we are reminded that honey is a gift of God. “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it,” God says. “Listen to me, and walk in my ways, and I will feed you with finest wheat, and sweet honey in the rock.” (Ps 81).

Over and over, we are told that the promised land – the land that God promises to Abraham and his descendants – is a land flowing with milk and honey. When God calls out to Moses by the burning bush, God says, “I have seen the affliction of my people, and … I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”

(There are some scholars who have suggested that this “honey” might actually be fig syrup; but it’s the same word, in Hebrew, as in that story about Samuel and the lion and the bees, so I’m inclined to think they are talking about actual honey.)

And if the promised land is a land flowing with milk and honey, then we are forced to the inescapable conclusion:

The promised land was full of bees.

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Most of us are kind of wary of bees. Bees, after all, can sting, and that sting can be not merely painful, but deadly. I have a niece who is allergic to bees; she carries an epipen and tends to avoid flower gardens. She didn’t develop an allergy until her teenage years but I remember when she got her first bee sting. She was maybe three or four years old at the time. She came running in from outside, weeping, and in the midst of her tears she told us: “I wasn’t hurting it! I just wanted to pet it!” She learned on that day that even kindness is sometimes met by cruelty. That sting was a painful experience in more ways than one.

So I find myself wondering: what if we could have the sweetness without the sting? The honey, without the bee?

Would it still be the promised land?

In pondering this question, I decided to turn for counsel to a respected sage, someone known for his kindness and humility, someone whose words are few, but whose insights have touched many.

I am speaking, of course, about Winnie the Pooh.

Pooh knows a thing or two about bees; in fact, in the very first chapter of the book of Pooh, he shares his philosophy regarding the Reason for Bees: “The only reason,” he says, “that I know of for being a bee is making honey. And the only reason for making honey, is so I can eat it.”

The bees, however, beg to differ. You may remember how the story goes – how Winnie the Pooh borrows a balloon from his friend Christopher Robin, and floats up to the bee hive, pretending to be a little cloud. Christopher Robin helps with the deception by walking about with an umbrella. But the bees are not fooled. After a few moments, one of them gives Pooh a nasty sting on the nose.

Which is something of a moment of revelation for Pooh. In the light of this experience, he revises his theory. “I have just been thinking, [he says,] and I have come to a very important decision. These are the wrong sort of bees.”

That sting on the nose is an epiphany: Maybe, just maybe, there is more than one reason for being a bee.

Bees, of course, do more than just make honey. For one thing, they pollinate flowers, making it possible for plants to bear fruit. Bees are directly responsible for about a third of the fruits and vegetables that we eat. Bees make honey, it is true, but they also make almonds, and blueberries, and cucumbers, and squash, and tomatoes. Bumblebees are one of the few insects in the world that can pollinate tomatoes. Tomato flowers hold on to their pollen so tightly. Bumblebees grab onto a tomato flower and vibrate their wing muscles, at a precise frequency, right around middle C, and the pollen shakes loose. Bumblebees literally hum tomatoes into existence.

Ask a bear what bees are for, and he will answer: bees are for making honey. Ask a tomato what bees are for, and it will tell you: bees are for making tomatoes. Ask a bee what bees are for, and she will tell you, bees are for being bees.

There is a human tendency to view other creatures as existing for our benefit. Bees, flowers, other people – we tend to value them based on what they can do for us. And if this really is all they are for — if creatures exist only to serve our needs — then when they no longer do so, we can get rid of them. Why worry about the widespread collapse of honey bee colonies, when we can sweeten our cakes with high fructose corn syrup?

Maybe we get this idea from the fact that we have so much power over other creatures. The Bible tells us that God gave us dominion over the earth, and this century certainly seems to have borne out that fact. We’ve altered our atmosphere, we’ve emptied the seas, we’ve modified our genes, we’ve driven countless species to extinction, all in the space of a century or two. It’s easy to see how we might think of ourselves as the stars of this earthly drama.

But Jesus once reminded his followers that not even a sparrow falls to earth without God taking notice.

Or maybe, not even a bee.

It turns out, by making honey, bees don’t just make life sweeter, they make it possible. Possible for us, possible for the flowers, possible for the bees themselves. So if we start off pondering the reason for bees, we end up pondering the reason for being.

Ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In God’s hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.
(Job 12:7-10)

(Sermon originally preached by LIza B. Knapp at the Belchertown Fair Ecumenical Worship Service, September 20, 2015)

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