Notes Towards a Philosophy of Bees

Note: This entry was originally a facebook post composed in May 2018.

In his 1929-30 lectures, Heidegger devotes a section to the then latest research on bees. Yesterday, I was looking again at some sections of Kant’s Third Critique, and in §43 he says that the products of bees are products of nature, properly speaking, but products of art if we think of the bees as created by God. I looked into this a bit and it turns out that, actually, a lot of philosophers had a lot of different things to say about bees.

Plato has Socrates liken poets to bees in the Ion. The contrast with Heidegger—for whom animals are basically slightly more advanced automata and poets the pinnacle of humanity—is priceless. Bees are also briefly mentioned in the Meno.

Aristotle has a chapter on bees in The Generation of Animals III.10, I heard (haven’t found it yet) and several on bees and wasps in The History of Animals IX.30f.

Cicero relates a story (in De Divinatione) that bees sat on Plato’s lips when he was a child and people took it as an omen that he will write honey-sweet words. A similar story is told of St. Ambrose, patron saint of beekeepers.

Seneca wonders whether bees produce honey or simply gather it, and eventually decides that they blend what they gather into something new and so should we with the texts we read. (Moral Letters to Lucilius, 84)

Marc Aurel sagely remarks that what is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee either. (Meditations, VI, 54)

Porphyry wrote that bees return to their hive like just souls return to heaven and are symbols for “souls that are married (as it were) to (the humid and fluctuating nature of) generation” in his On the Cave of the Nymphs, (an allegorical reading of a passage from Homer, I believe).

Aquinas points to monarchy among bees to argue for the naturalness of monarchic rule. (On Kingship, I.3.19)

Descartes, to my knowledge, does not mention bees but wax features famously in the Meditations.

The most notorious poetico-philosophical usage of bees must be Mandeville’s, I guess.

Marx notes (Kapital I) that bees are different from architects, in that the architect has an idea of the structure he wants to build in their head before they build it, whereas bees don’t. (This seems close to Kant who says that we see art in those things in which an idea, Vorstellung, precedes their realization, right after his note on bees.)

The only reference to bees I found in Nietzsche was from the beginning of the Zarathustra where it says, roughly, “I’ve had it with my wisdom like a bee that has collected too much honey…”

Wittgenstein notes that we can say that bees are nice *like* people in preparing honey for us, but not simply that they are nice – because they might sting us.


I kept searching and found a few more appearances by bees in the history of philosophy.

  • This blog post here adds Kierkegaard and Hobbes to the list. Kierkegaard seems to be close to Kant: he also insists that the bees’ products are not art, but the argument is different if the paraphrase is right: bees don’t produce art because their combs are all the same, whereas artworks are all different from each other.


  • Hobbes, highly interestingly, seems to think that bees don’t need a state because they don’t have speech and therefore cannot lie. This falls within a good Christian tradition of seeing the possibility of evil linked with freedom and reason, but also interesting that he, of all people, does not project a monarchy on bee-life, other than Aquinas, for example.


  • There’s an aphorism that bees are like avaricious people in that they work as if they would live forever and a different version adds politicians to the pair. I found it ascribed to either Democritus or Wittgenstein but it might be apocryphal.


  • Perhaps my favourite quote on bees is Francis Bacon’s. It is reminiscent of Seneca’s observation above that bees both gather things and transform them but he associates the two with empirical and theoretic work respectively and how we need both. 

    “Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.”– Novum Organon I, 95.

    • Linguist- philosopher Benveniste discusses Karl von Frisch’s research on bee language.
    • French philosophe Voltaire has an article on bees in his philosophical dictionary which comments also on Mandeville’s poem.
  • The lack of German Idealists started to stand out a bit but eventually I found a reference in Hegel:

    “Der Geist erscheint also hier als der Werkmeister, und sein Tun, wodurch er sich selbst als Gegenstand hervorbringt, aber den Gedanken seiner noch nicht erfaßt hat, ist ein instinktartiges Arbeiten, wie die Bienen ihre Zellen bauen.”

    Phenomenology of Spirit, the chapter on religion. He is talking about the Egpytians here, who stop being bees, effectively, when they invent hieroglyphs and language.


Many friends have responded to the initial facebook post and added further references to bees in the history of thought.

    • Antonio Vargas drew my attention to Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs and told me Plato links bees to monarchy in the Statesman.
    • Marc Brilliant tells me that Herder discusses bees in his philosophy of history.
    • Max Feldman points me towards Agamben’s The Open.
    • I owe to David Sessions this Derrida text in which he comments not only on the venerable tradition of philosophers commenting on bees but also adds Schelling to our list.
    • Roberto Salazar points me to Bergson’s L’Évolution créatrice. 
    • Declan Kuch tells me of a discussion of Ernst Jünger on bees in Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux.


Other friends point me to a long list of literary appearances of bees: Virgil, Coetzee, Crèvecoeur, Milton, Shakespeare, Ernst Jünger, Claire Preston, Maeterlinck.

In linguistic anthropology there is William F. Hanks:

“…if we found a semiotic code incapable of self-interpretation, we would have a code _into_ which translation would be severely limited, if not impossible. An example of this might be the well-known signs produced by bees, which are remarkably precise in indexing the direction and distance of pollen sources. Such signs can be approximately glossed into a human language, but no human signs can be translated into the gestural signs of bees, for these are not self-interpreting.”

In music, there is Charles Butler’s Bee’s Madrigal (thanks, Emily Smith!).

Aladin Borioli draws my attention to this book on bees and philosophy.

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