Archive for the ‘Cultural Entomology’ Category

Specimens of the collection of tortoise beetles (Cassidinae) from the Manchester Museum; those marked with pink and blue labels are types. © The Manchester Museum.

When a taxonomist is going to name a new species, s/he must designate a particular specimen as the reference standard of that species. Such specimen – one particular butterfly, pressed plant or mineral – is called the name-bearing type (=holotype). It is permanently associated with the published scientific name and official description of the species. Type specimens serve as the primary and unique references for all known species names. They play a key role in stabilizing the use of species names. The type must be unambiguously designated, because it is required for identifying other specimens or validating the use of a name. Types are deposited in reliable natural history museums, properly cared for and made available to researchers that need to examine them.

Similarly to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures which establishes a common understanding of such units as length, mass, time, electric current and others, natural history museums keep type specimens to provide unequivocally links to species names. A number of the type specimens in a particular museum reflects its scientific significance and international standing. The Manchester Museum holds some 22,000 types representing over 8,000 species names, and the number of the types is growing. The Museum is one of the most important taxonomic depositaries in the UK.

Traditionally, type specimens are kept in behind-the-scenes stores of natural history museums and never displayed. Their primary role is to support taxonomic research. Below a selection of type specimens from different collections of the Manchester Museum is presented.

The holotype of Rufous-backed Shrike (Lanius lama), one of the names under which Grey-backed Shrike (Lanius tephronotus) has been known; the bird is known from Tibet. © The Manchester Museum.
Type specimens of three corals: syntype of the hydrocoral Errina capensis from costal waters off Cape of Good Hope (left), syntype of the stony coral Stylasterina tiliatus from Pacific Ocean, Sulu islands (middle), and the holotype of the hydrocoral Errina novaezelandiae (red coral) from waters off New Zealand (right). © The Manchester Museum.
Holotypes of the liverworts described by Richard Spruce (1817-1893). © The Manchester Museum.
Holotype of wooldridgeite, a mineral containing calcium, copper, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sodium; named after James Wooldridge (1923-1995), a keen amateur from Worcestershire (UK) who discovered the material. © The Manchester Museum.
The female holotype of the species Dysaulophthalma nathani, described from the re-curated Indian collection of mantises (Mantodea). © The Manchester Museum

Well, the work of a taxonomist could apparently be compared even to that of a detective.

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Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata) from the collection of the Manchester Museum; its sting is arrowed. © Manchester Museum.

Many species of ants (family Formicidae) hold a great fascination for the human from the ancient time. For instance, Pliny the Elder believed that ants are the only living creatures besides man that bury their dead. Ants have been greatly admired for the qualities of intelligence, hard work, good organisation, and harmonious social life. Moral lessons for mankind were frequently drawn from various aspects of their behaviour. In the Old Testament, one can find the following wisdom: ‘Go to the any thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise: which, having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest’. Ant colonies in their anthills could be seen as both a microcosm of man and his world, and a positive example of communal cooperation. However, not all ants have acquired such a positive reputation among humans, some of them are feared: e.g., the Bulldog Ant (Myrmecia sp.), or the African Driver Ants (Dorylus spp.), which sometimes are depicted as merciless invaders that consume all creatures in their path, especially in Hollywood horror movies; for general information about myrmecophobia (=fear of ants) see here.

One of the feared ant species is the Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata), a large black ant that can reach a length up to 2-3 cm (see photo). It is the largest ant of Central and South Americas, known from the Caribbean lowlands of such countries as Honduras and Costa Rica, southward to Peru and Brazil. Ants live in large subterranean colonies with the entrances situated at the base of large trees. Each colony contains from 700 to 1400 worker ants: i.e., members of the worker caste, all are infertile females. Workers are solitary hunters that search for their prey (various smaller insects) from ground level up to the canopy, and can be seen and encountered during both day- and night times; for more information about Bullet Ant see here and here.

This ant should be avoided as it can inflict an extremely painful sting (its sting is arrowed in the photo above). The venom of the Bullet Ant contains poneratoxin, a neuropeptide causing an acute pain and local paralysis, but not fatal to humans. The regional name of Paraponera clavata in Costa Rica is ‘hormiga bala’, meaning ‘bullet ant’. People who have been stung by this ant say that its bite feels like a bullet wound, or even like a 3-inch burning rusty nail in your heel; the pain can last for 24 or more hours, and a person may need 2 weeks to recover from a single sting. If someone scored various stinging insects like bees, wasps and ants on a pain scale from 1 to 4, еру Bullet Ant would surely get the highest, 4-point score. Hence, it is hardly surprising that Native Americans of the Yurok tribe in California believe that ants became venomous by catching chips in their mouths from a mythical burning arrowhead. In Brazil, members of the indigenous tribe Satere-Mawe, who reside along the border between the Pará and Amazonas states in Brazil, use Bullet Ants and their painful stings in a ceremony of initiating young men into adulthood; watch the video below.

Despite some undeniably negative qualities (from the point of view of humans, of course) that can be attributed to bullet ants, the ant still inspires some naturalists to poetize them. Here is the latest limerick dedicated to the Bullet Ant by Richard A. Jones (2021):

The bullet ant feared no attacker,

Because with her sting she fought backer.

The venom she dealt

Was the worst to be felt –

A true hypodermic fire-cracker.

References and further reading:

Henderson C. L. 2010. Butterflies, moths, and other invertebrates of Costa Rica. Austin, University of Texas Press, 173 pp.

Jones R. A. & Ure-Jones C. 2021. A natural history of insects in 100 limericks. Pelagic Publishing, 110 pp.

Kritsky G. & Cherry R. 2000. Insect Mythology. Writers Club Press, 140 pp.

Sleigh C. 2003. Ant. Reaktion Book, 216 pp.

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Stories from the Museum Floor

In this week’s Story from the Museum Floor Visitor Team member Piotr continues his fascinating exploration of the intersection between Entomology and early film making through the pioneering work of Władysław Starewicz.

Check out the first part of the story here. And for more on our entomology collections have a look at the Curator’s blog.

Out of the real world he created the world of fantasy

When World War I started in the summer of 1914, Russia was separated from the rest of Europe by the German frontline. Since foreign films were unavailable, there was a huge demand on the local filmmaking industry. The so called Skobelev Committee got the monopoly on producing war reels, but the same organisation also established a fiction film department. Film directors working for the studio were given exemption from military service, which may have been the reason why Starewicz joined the Committee…

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Stories from the Museum Floor

In this week’s Story from the Museum Floor, Piotr from the Visitor Team explores the fascinating intersection between Entomology and early film making through the pioneering work of Władysław Starewicz.

For more on our Entomology collections please take a look the Curator’s blog.

Back from the Dead

Another year has passed and the Paper pumpkins, grinning at us as they hang from the trees are now several months behind us. Back in the Halloween season of 2019 we had a very successful screening of The Nightmare before Christmas  here at the Museum in our Living Worlds gallery. Conceived and produced by Tim Burton, and directed by Henry Selick, this 1993 classic has been attracting new audiences and enjoying a  cult following since its first release, more than 27 years ago. What I am also sure of is that probably very few people will wonder where and how it all…

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To celebrate the 2021 Year of the Ox in the Chinese calendar, we have chosen the Ox Beetle (Strategus aloeus) as a star object from the Manchester Museum’s Entomology collection. It is a species of the rhinoceros beetles from the family Scarabaeidae from the Americas. The male Ox Beetle has three characteristic horns on its thorax, two at the back and the longer one at the front, resembling Triceratops. This species is also called Elephant Beetle, Hercules beetle or Escarabajo Buey (in Spanish).

Male of the Ox Beetle. © Julián-Caballero C. Camilo

Adults of the Ox beetle can grow up to 2.5-3.8 cm long and live four to six months only. They feed mainly on various fruits and flowers, and are very active during the breeding season from May to November. Interestingly, the male Ox Beetles have two varieties, “major” and “minor”. Major males have three large horns on the thorax used for mating competitions. Minor males have shorter horns. Female Ox Beetles have a small raised area (a very short horn) used mainly for digging, not for fighting. Females lay their eggs in rotten wood or roots on sandy soil, with dried leaves sometimes added to maintain the right temperature and secure hatching.

Female Ox Beetle from the Entomology collection of the Manchester Museum. © The Manchester Museum

Larvae or grubs of Ox Beetles feed on roots with their powerful mandibles. Larvae are about 5 cm in size when curled, double if straightened. The larval stage takes about 4-6 months to develop into a pupal stage and almost a year to develop into an adult. Pupation may be affected by weather conditions, but this stage can be shortened when maintained in warmer environments (for example, when bred in captivity, for a manual see here).

This species is the largest and most common beetle found in the south-west part of the USA, from Arizona to Florida. It occurs throughout Central America and in parts of South America (especially in Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil).

Records of the Ox Beetle in the Americas; based on Naturalista Colombia.

Larvae of Ox Beetles are considered pests, causing damage to plantations and gardens. For example, in Colombia, larvae affect recently planted oil palms due to the use of large amount of decomposing material as part of the planting process. In Mexico, larvae can affect new plantations of Blue Agave, Agave tequilana, a key ingredient of tequila. However, adults and larvae of the Ox Beetle also play a vital role in recycling organic matter in tropical ecosystems.

More information and resources:

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Male of Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera alexandrae) from the collection of the entomology collection of Manchester Museum. © Manchester Museum.

One of the Manchester Museum’s temporary exhibitions entitled ‘Beauty and the Beasts: falling in love with insects’, which was opened from late Nov 2019 till Dec 2020, was devoted to insects, their beauty and cultural importance for people. Due to the coronavirus crisis the exhibition was opened to the public only for few months from late Nov 2019 to mid-March 2020. However, its full, richly illustrated content is freely accessible here online. Despite being unable to run tours to the exhibition, we continue to introduce our audience to its content by running online zoom talks and discussion sessions. One of such sessions with the visitors from the Manchester Culture Champions resulted in a lovely feedback: a poem written and presented to us by one of its participants, Nakib Narat, who was inspired by our presentation and the content of the exhibition. Please, have a look below and enjoy as we do. Thank you very much Nakib for such delightful and unexpected feedback.

Three Christmas Stars of Manchester Museum

(Thank You very much to Curators Rachel Webster and Dmitri Logunov for the wonderful Zoom talk about their work, displays and stories about some of the extraordinary plants and creatures in the Manchester Museum)

Lovely Three Stars of Zoom event

Bearing gifts so generously sent.

Magical Manchester Museum’s curiosities

Gifted from Orient to Occident.

Maria Jose’s “Made to Measure”

Amazing, extraordinary treasures! 

From “Beauty & The Beasts” luminosities:

Dmitri & Rachel’s personal pleasures.

O Stars of wonder, stars so bright

Joyful, learning. So discerning

Rachel & Dmitri’s wondrous sights!

Entomology to Botany and Zoology

Mantis Shrimp to Moths and bugs that glow

Herbariums for ecosystems yearning

As Insectophiles gather ‘neath the Mistletoe

Humans and insects connected.

All life only protected 

When we are a whole.

All life only protected

When we are a whole

Nakib Narat

Spider model made by our young visitors to one of the insect-related public events run by the Manchester Museum. © Vicky Haydn

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Spiders – you love them or you hate them. The latter is probably because you are afraid of them. It is hardly surprising, as the (inter)national media are full of spider-related nonsense with the only truth being that the news are about spiders which indeed exist: e.g., THE SCOTSMAN, Oct 1 2005: “Scotland is being invaded by new breeds of spider which are marching north as a result of climate change…” – DAILY MAIL, July 1 2005: “Gardener is left fighting for breath after a nip from the black widow’s distant cousin”. – THE WASHINGTON TIMES, Feb 27 2004: “A German man who kept more than 200 spiders in his home, along with other odd pets, was apparently killed and eaten by his critters”. No doubts, after reading this, anyone will get scared. Actually, the first two storylines are about False Black Widow Spiders (Steatoda species) representing part of the native British fauna and not dangerous. Reports on their bites are rarely/not backed up with formal spider identification.

Historically, spiders have become a traditional part of Halloween scare and even its symbol due to their suspected connection with witches. In medieval times, spiders, black cats and rats were believed to be evil companions of witches. Spiders are regularly depicted in horror films, occurring in and crawling out witch dwellings, vampire lairs or dungeons, and such places are always shown as being totally lined up with a thick layer of silk. Hence, no wonder people are afraid of spiders. But are spiders really that dangerous?

Pumpkin spider candle holder. © Jade Adrian

Spiders represent a very diverse group of organisms, with over 48,860 species being described worldwide to date. In Britain alone there are approximately 670 spider species, of which two thirds belong to the group known as ‘money spiders’ – tiny creatures with the body length less than 2 mm long. In the UK, there are NO spiders dangerous to man, rest assured about this. Nevertheless, how many of us could admire spiders or simply tolerate their presence: say, daddy-long-legs in own cellar or a house-spider in a bathroom?

Most/all common fears of spiders are because these awesome creatures are badly misunderstood. If one imagines a spider, two main features thereof immediately come to mind: venom and silk. Let us consider both features and some misconceptions connected to them.

1. All spiders are poisonous.

This is what people say and this is one of the main reasons why spiders are feared. Well, all spiders are carnivorous. They possess sharp fangs and kill their prey with a venomous bite. Thus, all spiders, except for one family Uloboridae, are venomous. But the common concern and fear are really about whether spiders are dangerous to humans?

Our ancestors seemed to be confident about this, depicting spiders as demonic, insect ghouls, with venom mouths. Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–42) in his epigram ‘How by a Kiss he found both his Life and Death’ made known spiders as anti-bees gathering poison from a flower:

“Nature, that gave the bee so feat a grace

To find honey of so wondrous fashion,

Hath taught the spider out of the same place

To fetch poison, by strange alteration.”

In the 17th century, spiders and their bites were sometimes regarded as dangerous as nitric acid or rat poison. Even nowadays, there are lots of urban legends about “deadly” spiders, for instance, “The Daddy-longlegs Spider has the world’s most powerful venom”; “People can lose arms and legs because of spider bites”; “Deadly poisonous spiders lurk beneath toilet seats in airports”; “The spider found in the bath crawled out the plughole”; etc. Alas, none of these statements is true.

Male of House Spider (Eratigena duellica) did not crawl out the plughole, as some might think, it entered the house via the door searching for a possible mate. Just let it go. © H. Bellmann

In a simplified way, there are two different kinds of venom produced by spiders: neurotoxic and necrotic. Neurotoxic venoms work directly on the nervous system. The best known example is the venom of Black Widow spiders (Latrodectus species). Necrotic venoms cause damage to the tissues, such as ulcers and lesions. The best example is the venom of Recluse Spiders (Loxosceles species). More about spider bites here and here. However, we need to remember that although a dozen or so spiders (out of about 50,000 species known worldwide) are known to produce venom that is toxic to humans, none of these species occurs in the UK. Thus, in this country, there is no reason to fear spiders and their bites at all.

Cross section of spider carapace to show the position of poison glands. Modified from Foelix (2011).

2. All spiders make webs.

In our imaginary world spiders are capable of weaving silk in such large quantities that even a human body could be wrapped up, as it happened to poor Frodo Baggins in Shelob’s lair from ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Nothing could be more untrue than such nonsense (not to mention that the giant spider Shelob was depicted as a non-existing type of animal (even with a sting).

The English word ‘spider’ comes from the old English ‘spinnan’ via the Middle English ‘spither’ meaning ‘spinner’, and as such spiders frequently appear in English literature. For instance, Shakespeare used a spider in his ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Act III, Scene II:  “Here in her hairs / the painter plays the spider, and hath woven / a golden mesh t’entrap the hearts of men”. Yes, all spiders can produce and weave silk. However, although all spider webs are made of silk – the material of outstanding mechanical properties (or here) – not all spiders build webs for prey capture. Many actively hunt for their prey, as reflected in their names: jumping spiders, lynx spiders, wolf spiders, etc. Yet all spiders use silk for producing egg sacs, retreats, moulting or mating chambers, draglines, and some of them for making catching devices. Many spiders use silk threads for ballooning and this way can disperse for long distances, sometimes for hundreds of miles (watch the video below). This is why in the Medieval English bestiaries, spiders were described as aerial worms that take their nourishment from the air.

I you are walking in the countryside and accidentally have a silk thread across your face, there is nothing to worry about – it is likely to be gossamer, and hence the time for St Martin’s summer, Martinmas in a church and a goose to be cooked and eaten… By all means silk production by spiders has no effect on our life, apart from the need to clean dark corners of our houses, and in this respect there is no need to worry or fear spiders at all.

Male of common European jumping spider Aelurillus v-insignitus is looking at you. Is not it cute? Are you really still scared? © Barbara Thaler-Knoflach

Further reading:

Foelix R.F. 2011. Biology of spiders (third edition). Oxford Univ. Press., 420 pp.

Hillyard P. 1994. The book of the spider. New York: Avon Books, 218 pp.

Marren P. & Mabey R. 2010. Bugs Brittanica. London: Chatto & Windus, 500 pp.

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Male of Euglossa heterosticta approaching flowers (right) and landed on them (left), La Selva Field Station, Costa Rica, June 2018; © M. O’Donnel.

Honeybee males are called drones (see also here). They do not have sting, do not make honey, do not even feed themselves but are rather fed by worker bees; their primary role is to mate with virgin queens. As result, drones have acquired a rather negative reputation among humans. From the ancient times till now, drones have been regularly described as ‘lazy loudmouths’, ‘greedy lozells’ or even ‘virulent weeds, to be eradicated’ (Fig. 1). They “lazily consume the labours of the bee” – said Hesiod in his Works and Days (c. 700BS); so drones were not even seen as the bees. Thomas Moffet (1658) in his Insectorum wrote about drones:

Both God and man disdain that man

Which Drone like in the blue,

Nor good nor ill, endeavour can

Upon himself to live,

But idle is, and without sting,

And grieves the labouring Bee,

Devouring that which he home brings,

Not yielding help or fee.”

Fig. 1. Greedy drones, as depicted in Cotton’s Buzz-a-Buzz. © The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford. In the frame at the left top corner, a honeybee drone from the collection of the Manchester Museum.

Sometimes drones are depicted as indolent, small-brained creatures that are anatomically unfitted for foraging, in other words, for doing THE important job – i.e., collecting nectar and making honey for us, humans. Indeed, what impudence!

Perhaps drones are not altogether idle and do help in warming and cleaning the hive, and secreting a special jelly used for feeding brood. Yet the truth is that after the breeding season all drones are evicted from the hive or slaughtered by female workers if they resist eviction. Their life is short and basically serves one purpose only – mating, but who would dare to say that this JOB is not important?

However, drones in some other groups of bees, for instance, orchid bees (see also here) demonstrate a far more complex lifestyle and are notable for their important role in pollination, especially of orchids – this is why their name. As the famous Spanish poet Antonio Machada (1875–1939) put it, “Bees, singers not for the honey but for the flowers”. Orchid bees are also distinguished by their shiny metallic coloration and resemble living jewels (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The male orchid bee Exaerete smaragdina from Costa Rica in the insect collection of the Manchester Museum. © The Manchester Museum.

Orchids are the most species rich plant family, accounting for more than 10% of all flowering plant species. Male orchid bees pollinate over 25% of the orchid species (c. 2,000) from tropical Americas. More than 600 orchid species depend solely on male orchid bees for pollination. Males do not specialize in one or a few orchids and visit many different species. Although females of some orchid bees pollinate nectar-producing orchids such as Sobralia (in that mode resembling other bee pollinators), it’s the males that are much more important in orchid pollination. This unique mode of pollination is sometimes called the ‘perfume flower syndrome‘ – that is a selective attraction of male orchid bees to orchid flowers.

Male orchid bees are strong flyers. While visiting numerous flowers, individual males are able to travel long distances from 400-800 m to 5-6 km in a single trip, or even to cross the distance of 45-50 km within a few days. The longest flight distance ever recorded for a male orchid bee (Euglossa viridissima) from Yucatán, Mexico was 95 km, crossed in 12 days. Isn’t that an impressive achievement for a housefly-sized creature?

But why do male orchid bees visit orchids and other flowers? Certain flowers are visited to feed on nectar and pollen, as all bees do. However, males do not collect nectar for producing honey. Making honey is still the duty of orchid bee females. Yet the majority of flowers visited by drones usually lack nectar but are very fragrant, with bees being attracted by flower scent. Indeed, they visit flowers to collect aromatic compounds to render themselves attractive to females, and also for chemical signalling to their rivals during territorial display. Males also collect fragrances from non-floral sources, such as plant wounds, fungi or even rotten wood.

Fig. 3. Male of Eulaema cingulata from the collection of the Manchester Museum: A – brusher of the front tarsi; B – tibial organ of the hind legs, modified from Dressler (1968: fig. 1).

While visiting a flower, a male brushes on the surface of the flower with hair pads of its forelegs (Fig. 3), collecting the fragrance oils. Usually the bee brushes for a short time, then hovers near the flower and transfers the collected substance via midlegs to a specialized hollow pocket in its enlarged hind legs in which the scents are stored. The male repeats this behaviour many times, sometimes remaining on one flower or inflorescence as long as 90 minutes. This behaviour is shown on the following short video.

Drone receives a pollen sac (=pollinarium) as it leaves the flower or during collecting fragrance oils, as shown in Fig. 4. Pollinaria are usually glued to a dorsal side of bees: head, thorax or abdomen (Fig. 5), also to antennae and legs. Individual bees often can carry the pollinaria of more than one orchid species. Having received pollinaria, drone flies away and then visits another flower of the same orchid species where the pollinaria are detached and pollination takes place.

Fig. 4. Pollination of the orchid Stanhopea grandiflora by male orchid bee Eulaema meriana: (A) The bees enters in the saccate base of the flower lip; (B) The lip is very smooth and slippery, the bee may fall while withdrawing, attaching pollinaria (in yellow) to its thorax; (C) Dorsal view of the bee with the pollinaria attached; (D) Outline of the bee showing placement of the pollinaria from side. Modified from Dressler (1968: fig. 2).

Many orchids are very scarce in nature, with individual plants being separated from each other by long distances. Therefore, male orchid bees are to be really strong flyers to visit several flowers of such orchids in a single trip. Indeed, these bees are strong flyers (see above).

Fig. 5. Outline of an orchid bee male showing how pollinaria of different orchid groups can be attached: (A) Notylia; (B) Lacaena; (C) Mormodes, goblin orchids; (D) Cycnoches; modified from Dressler (1968: fig. 4). On the right: male of Euglossa imperialis from Costa Rica carrying two pollinaria, © J.H. Marden.

According to one hypothesis, the main reason why male orchid bees collect floral fragrances is that it helps them to be more competitive when mating. A female seems to choose a potential mate based on its ‘quality’ which is associated with the complexity of a perfume presented by the male. Females prefer males with more complex bouquets, which can contain up to a dozen of aromatic compounds. A complex perfume is correlated with greater male fitness: i.e., its strength and physical characteristics. The male that is able to fly long distances and to visit more flowers can present a more complex bouquet; it also means that such male lived longer and hence its survival rate is higher. As male physical characteristics are heritable, the offspring from a stronger male will have higher chances to survive.

The orchid bees’ attraction to floral scents is used to study their diversity, daily activity, flight ranges, etc. by means of chemical baits. Please, watch the following video on how to attract and count orchid bees.

Further reading

Birchall E. 2014. In praise of bees. A cabinet of curiosities. Quiller, Shrewsbury, UK, 256 pp.

Cameron S.A. 2004. Phylogeny and biology of Neotropical orchid bees (Euglossini). Ann. Rev. Entomology, 49: 377-404.

Dressler R.L. 1968. Pollination by Euglossine bees. Evolution, 22(1): 202-210.

McHatton R. 2011. Orchid pollination: exploring a fascinating world. Orchids, June: 340-349; online

Roubik D.W. & Hanson P.E. 2004. Orchid bees of tropical America. Biology and field guide. Sna Jose: INBio, 370 pp.

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01a_Honey Bee_a

A Honeybee (Apis mellifera) collecting nectar and pollen, as seen by a professional photographer. © Victor Glupov (Novosibirsk, Russia).

01b_Madhubani Art

A Honeybee drinking nectar, as seen by a folk artist. Madhubani Folk Art, practiced in the Mithila region of India; August, 2018. Source: Indian Institute of Science.

Everyone knows and likes bees, particularly the European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), both as the spring harbinger in poetry and as the maker of honey. As a poet from Minnesota James Lenfestey (2016: 99) nicely put it, “Honey is food the way poetry is food, sweet as a child’s wounded smile is sweet, complex the way fine wine’s complex, enrapturing the entire mouth, with a sticky, lasting finish”. The Honeybee is one of the few insects domesticated and then cultivated by man for own benefits; the second most famous one is Silkworm Moth (Bombyx mori).

Bee is a universal symbol of ethical virtues, such as diligence, sociability, purity, cleanliness, wisdom, creativity and others (Kritsky & Cherry, 2000). In Ancient Egypt, tears of the Sun God Ra turned into bees upon touching the ground. In Ancient Greece, bee was a cult symbol for Artemis, the virgin huntress and goddess of wild nature. In Christian allegory, Honeybee often represents the Virgin Mary, also known as Queen of the Bees in Catholicism. As Mary gave birth to Christ, so the queen bee produces honey; more about Honeybees in the Bible can be found here.

02_Honey Bee_Barcelona

Depictions of Honeybees – a Christian symbol of purity and cleanliness – on the main doors of La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona (Catalonia). © Dmitri Logunov (Manchester, UK).

The British traditional lore on bees is also rich (Chainey, 2018). For instance, in Suffolk it is believed that Honeybees are to be treated as members of the family because they are intelligent and hard-working creatures. Penzance people are confident that honey should be harvested on St Bartholomew’s Day (24 August), because he is the patron saint of bees. In Yorkshire, dire consequences could follow if someone kills a bee. Perhaps, one of the best-known bee symbols in the UK is the worker bee of Manchester, which has been an emblem of the city’s hard-working past and the city being a hive of activity for over 150 years (see here and here for more information).

03_Manchester Bee

One of the traditional images of the worker bee of Manchester, the city that was made by the workers. © http://www.visitmanchester.com.

One of the most diverse pantheons of bee-related symbols exists in India. There are evidences of beekeeping and harvesting honey in India since the early Vedic Period (c. 1,500 BC); see here for more information. In Āyurveda, one of the world’s oldest healthy lifestyle system, honey is mentioned as being used for healing and cleaning wounds, anointing and diets (see here for more information).

In India, honey is collected from four indigenous bee species: Indian Honeybee (Apis cerana indica), a non-aggressive, domesticated bee in South Asia; Giant Honeybee (Apis dorsata), a large, aggressive species that could not be domesticated and is harvested from the wild; Dwarf Honeybee (Apis florea), a harmless species living in small, open colonies, not domesticated and also harvested from the wild; and Stingless Bee (Tetragonula iridipennis), a small harmless species of which honey and especially propolis (=bee glue) have notable pharmacological properties. Modern methods of beekeeping in India and the introduction of the European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) started in the late 19th century.

04_Giant Honey Bee

Specimens of Giant Honeybee (Apis dorsata) from the Manchester Museum’s entomological collection. © The Manchester Museum.

In Hindu mythology, bees are divine assistants to human’s earthly life, helping to keep all of nature in harmony. Bees are also powerful symbols of life and rebirth. In Assam, the spirit of men are said to become Honeybees (bee-souls). Here are few examples of numerous Indian bee-related symbols (based on Karttunen, 2015):

(1) Bees’ attraction to flowers was commonly used in erotic symbolism, developing the idea of kissing bees being in love with flowers: ‘A flower without a bee is like a young woman in love without a lover’ (Śankara ŚTBh 134). In India, beautiful women were said to attract bees that mistake them for flowers: their sweet breath or lotus-feet were mistaken for real lotus flowers. Well, some people might suspect that women’s perfume, flower ornaments or occasionally aromatic incenses could be the reason for this attraction, but who would believe in such explanation?

(2) Bees and their hum are often mentioned as symbols of love and spring. In the spring – the season of Kāma, the Hindu God of Love (sometimes depicted as Brahma‘s son) – the hum of bees is taken by poets as a romantic sound inciting love. It is believed that people yearning for absent or unwilling lovers could not stand to hear bees’ buzzing. In Indian mythology, Honeybees form the string of Kāma’s bow made of sugarcane, symbolizing that the love arrows of god are sweet but also painful. Kāma shoots five flowery arrows triggering the five effects of desire: attraction, followed by disturbance, burning, desiccation and, alas, destruction. Bees and their hum are always mentioned as Kāma’s subsidiary weapons.


Kāma, the Hindu God of Love, with his sugarcane bow having the string formed by honeybees. Source: here.

(3) Bee was a symbol of the Hindu gods Indra, Krishna and Vishnu who were collectively called Madhava, ‘born of honey’. Bees belong to the abodes of gods: Indra’s paradise. The Sanskrit word for honey is madhu, which means ‘mead’. Madhavi is also the name of a perennial evergreen liana (Hiptage benghalensis), native to India, which is usually mentioned in poetry as an erotic symbol, since it blooms in spring; it is also of great medicinal value.

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Honeybees are attracted by the sweetness of Krishna’s face. Source: Krishna Art.

(4) God Brahmā (the Creator) is the bee of Vishnu’s navel-lotus, humming Vedic texts (veda means ‘knowledge’).


Hindu Goddess Bhrāmarī and the honeybees. Source: Planet Bee Foundation.

One of the expressions of Hindus’ supreme deity Vishnu is an ethereal Blue Bee on a Lotus flower; the latter is the foremost symbol of feminine beauty (especially female eyes), prosperity and fertility. The blue colour refers to that of the sky from which the gods come. Brahmi (= waterhyssop; Bacopa monnieri) is a non-aromatic Indian herb which is used in a traditional Āyurvedic medicine.

There is also a Hindu Goddess Bhrāmarī (an incarnation of the Goddess Shakti) – the Goddess of Black Bees – whose name could be translated as ‘like a bee’ and who is associated with bees, hornets and wasps. Bee Goddess was regarded as the female principle of the divine, destroyer of demons and the embodiment of the energies of the Gods.

In modern India, bees are still perceived with an obvious piety: “…A man on the ground so low lifted his head up looking at us, smiling, raising his brow…” – from Mystic Indian. Since the ancient times, it is believed that honey brings poets the gift of sweet speech. Here is a quote from Rig Veda (1:90:6-8), an ancient collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns from around 1,5-2,000 BC:

“Let every wind that blows drop honey
Let the rivers and streams recreate honey
Let all our medicines turn honey
Let the dawn and evening be full of honey
Let the dark particles be converted to honey
Our nourisher, this sky above, be full of honey
Let our trees be honey
Let the Sun be honey
Let our cows secrete honey”.

Modern authors, artists and scientists continue to be struck by bees, their buzzing lifestyle, complex organisation of their life and their importance in nature. You can find more about bees, bee art and art in conservation in a special section of the Manchester Museum’s new exhibition ‘Beauty of the Beasts’ (here); the entire content of the exhibition can be found here.

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‘UnBEElievables’, Picture book by Douglas Florian (2012).

References and further reading:

Chainey D.D. 2018. A treasury of British folklore. Maypoles, Mandrakes & Mistletoe. National Trust, 192 pp.

Fudala A. 2017. The Sacred Bee: Ancient India. – Planet Bee Foundation, online here.

Karttunen K. 2015. Bhramarotpītādharah – Bees in Classical India. – Studia Orientalia Electronica, 107: 89-134; online here.

Kritsky G. & Cherry R. 2000. Insect Mythology. Writers Club Press, 140 pp.

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Dmitri Logunov, Curator of Arthropods, installing a central display case of the exhibition.

At the Manchester Museum, we opened a new temporary exhibition devoted to insects and other creepy-crawlies as inspirational tools for non-entomologists. The exhibition is called ‘Beauty and the Beasts: falling in love with insects’ and is about the cultural entomology rather than insects themselves. It is experimental in many ways. For instance, we provided the introductory panel in 18 different languages. Each display case has its own QR-tag, so that a visitor can scan it and get directly to the detailed description of its content with images of individual objects displayed. This tool is especially useful for visually impaired visitors. The entire content of the exhibition is accessible online and can be seen at: https://mmbeautyandthebeasts.wixsite.com/mmbeautyandthebeasts

If someone is interested, please, visit the site and let us know what you think. There is an option to leave your comments online. Any positive and critical comments are welcome. Thank you.


Entrance to the new exhibition. The Manchester Museum.

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