I knew the job was dangerous when I took it ...
- Jul 19, 2004
- Out of Bounds
The mystery of icon-preserving bees
For a decade, a beekeeper named Sidoros Ţiminis, living in the region of Kapandriti, near Athens, has kept a tradition: every spring, he slips icons of Christ, the Holy Virgin and different saints in his beehives, in order to bless his bees and his yearly honey production.
And every year, the very same mysterious phenomenon occurs: bees make their honeycomb cells around the pious images, meticulously avoiding covering them.
There are two things that may explain the avoidance of comb-building over the icon figures.
The first is the hypothesis that bees may avoid building comb over a richly colored background that may suggest flowers. I don't know whether anyone's tested this hypothesis by checking whether bees will similarly avoid obscuring colored non-holy imagery.
The more substantive - and more likely - explanation concerns the surface of the icon images. In commercial beehives there are rectangular frames within which the bees build their wax combs. A frame may be "foundationless" (just an open frame) or contain a foundation (a planar sheet of material - usually textured with (e.g.) dimples or recesses - onto which the comb is attached).
This Greek beekeeper inserts the icons into his frames (or frame equivalents) as foundations (or at least partial foundations). It appears to me that the icon images used are either glossy photos or prints under glass. Neither of these - particularly glass - provides a surface onto which the beeswax can reliably and securely adhere. Bees will leave voids over foundations or sub-areas of foundations that don't afford sufficient anchoring for the comb.
According to this 2018 research report:
... bees may re-orient their comb structure circa 90 degrees and continue building orthogonally to the plane in which the void is left - precisely what can be seen in the upper-left photo with the blue icon figure.