Honey Song, by Neil Rusch

What the bees—and the Bushmen—know

Tracing of a Ganesh-like therianthrope enveloped in a swarm of bees. South African Rock Art Digital Archive
Tracing of a Ganesh-like therianthrope enveloped in a swarm of bees.
South African Rock Art Digital Archive

What the bees and the Bushmen know

!kutten means “to sing” and !khau is “honey”; which they [the |Xam] explain by saying that – !khauu-ka-!kutten !’tten is “Honey Songs.”
—Wilhelm Bleek

The first wild swarm of honey bees that I ever saw were streaming through the late afternoon sunlight tracing lines through the air. From these bee-lines it appeared that the bees were flying straight into a massive rock face, and indeed this was the case. On closer inspection it turned out that the evening shadows concealed a fissure into which the bees disappeared and emerged. A sweet honey smell floated from the naturally occurring rock cavity that was their home.

Bees exploit all sorts of situations to make their nests but rock cavities have a particular attraction, or so it would seem judging by extant rock paintings that depict honey hunting as it took place in the distant past in such places as southern Africa and Spain. The tradition continues to this day in Nepal, where honey collectors follow age-old methods, using rope ladders to scale high cliffs.1 Elsewhere, in the Kalahari and southern Angola for example, bees will take up residence in the hollow trunks and branches of Baobab trees, where access is no less challenging than high cliffs for honey collecting. Alternatively, in semi-desert contexts, bees will often colonize hollow termite mounds and the abandoned burrows of aardvark and porcupine. More and more attention is now being paid to wild bees (where they still exist), their behavior and habitats. This development is one response to colony collapse disorder (CCD) and as a consequence there is a turn toward more natural methods of beekeeping. The trend is brought about by the reconsideration of current beekeeping practices that are driven by honey production and the commercialization of pollination services. For one thing, recent studies show that the reproductive process of swarming naturally controls the proliferation of the verroa mite, a major factor, among others, in the upsurge of CCD. When selecting an ideal home in the wild, bees exercise control over the space they choose to occupy. Thus they have in place a mechanism that helps determine colony size and reproductive biology through the cyclical process of swarming. Moreover, swarming promotes genetic diversity. Commercial beekeeping practice by contrast discourages swarming in the interests of honey production. Interventions such as expanding the brood chamber and increasing hive size/capacity are decisions that are neglectful of the reproductive rhythm and overall health of the colony. Other forms of manipulation like genetic modification through selective queen breeding circumvent the evolutionary process of natural selection. While there are obvious commercial advantages tied to such practices, they are invasive and are detrimental in the long term.2 Inevitably it requires a high degree of intervention in order to achieve commercial benchmarks and this disturbs the integrity of the honey bee colony. Almost a century ago, in 1923, Rudolf Steiner warned against excessive intervention. With hindsight his words are prophetic:

You must not think that I am unable to see—even from a non-anthroposophical point of view— that modern bee-keeping methods seem at first very attractive. […] But we must wait and see how things will be in fifty to eighty years time, for by then certain forces which have hitherto been organic in the hive will be mechanised, will become mechanical.3


The dhikr  of the heart is like the humming of the bees, neither loud nor disturbing.4
—Ibn Ata’Illah (d. 1309)

Southern San mythology links the colors and types of honey to the colors and speciation of antelope, which this image evokes powerfully. Harald Pager Collection, South African Rock Art Digital Archive
Southern San mythology links the colors and types of honey to the colors and speciation of antelope, which this image evokes powerfully. Harald Pager Collection, South African Rock Art Digital Archive

For millennia bees have held high status as exemplars for religious and sacred practices. Moreover, the depth of this veneration and the respect accorded to bees is further confirmed in the archaeological record. Some of the earliest written texts tell us about bees with great reverence and perceptivity. From these, and there are many, I select two that are particularly appealing. In the Salt Magical Papyrus, housed in the British Museum (No. 10051, recto 2, 5–6), we read that the Sun-god Ra created earth and sea. Further, the myth reveals that Ra’s eyes, right and left, are sun and moon respectively. Ra weeps and the falling tears become bees.

When Ra weeps, the water which flows from his eyes upon the ground turns into working bees. They work in flowers and trees of every kind and wax and honey come into being.

The second example comes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, generally agreed to have been composed in the first millennium B.C. In this text, the chapter “Madhu Brahmana” tells that the secret essence of the Vedas themselves was called the “madhu-vidya or honey doctrine.” In the first verse we read:

This earth is the honey (madhu, the effect) of all beings, and all beings are the honey (madhu, the effect) of this earth. Likewise this bright, immortal person in this earth, and that bright immortal person incorporated in the body, both are madhu. He indeed is the same as that Self, that Immortal, that Brahman, that All.

The current tendency that would have us believe that honey is a commodity is pernicious. The idea that honey is a commercial product distances consumers from the primary source. Honey and bees are abstracted—removed from their organic context—and this, no doubt, is but one causal factor contributing to the current bee crisis, particularly in Western industrialised countries. If we listen to the myths, honey is not a commodity; it is a sacrament, the old wisdom keeps saying.

The language of myth contains its own logic and generates knowledge (epistemology) that takes forms that are poetical and musical rather than discursive. Re-kindling a respectful relationship between people and bees requires taking a new look at the old language. Mythological thinking employs the logic of association and metaphor, devices that stand in contrast to the analytical yes/no of disputation and categorization. Myth will always remain recalcitrant to reason, but therein lie its possibilities. There is an obvious need to adopt a shift that values equally relationality alongside analysis. As an alternative way of perceiving, myth can be highly visual; that is, visionary, as in thinking in pictures. In the Neolithic, without any means of writing, bees and honey were depicted in paintings. In the Drakensberg, South Africa, for example, there are seventy-six paintings depicting aspects of Bushman honey-gathering. These images are located in a two-hundred-square-kilometer area in the Ndedema Gorge and were found by Harald Pager. Many of these paintings are documented and exist in replicated form at the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, including Pager’s renowned tracing of a honey gatherer that comes from the Matopos, Zimbabwe.To stand in these rock shelters in the presence of these paintings is to experience intimations of a reality different from the one we know.

For example honey, as creative substance, is crucial to the formation of the |Xam Bushman universe. Color, painting, and honey coalesce in their cosmology because honey, we are led to understand, is a primary substance, a sort of prima materia. If there were antelope prior to honey, then they were a pale version of themselves before honey of different types and colors was rubbed into their hides, at the time of creation. This action makes them recognizable for what they are (BC151 A2 1 052 04071–04074).5 Honey substance contributes to the emergence of individuated animal species such as Springbok, Hartebeest, Eland, Gemsbok, and Quagga. Honey is likewise formatory in creating the first Eland because honey as a priori substance becomes part of, and is integral to, the antelope when an old leather sandal is soaked in water and fed honey.

My own interest in |Xam knowledge is attracted to their understanding of bee communication.6 It appears that they intuitively understood the nature of vibroacoustics and therefore related to bees by means of vibration. This is astonishing because vibroacoustics is a neologism only recently adopted by bee researchers to better capture the nature of bee communication, both air particle oscillations that are heard by bees and substrate vibrations that are sensed (via the wax comb) but not heard. For their part, the |Xam said that they could “move bees to other people’s places” using a musical instrument called a !goin !goin that “vibrated the air.” The !goin !goin vibrates at a frequency in the order of ninety to 150 Hz and the effect of the sound produced is like that of a surround-sound-system. It reproduces an experience not unlike that of standing within a swarm of bees or the sound immersion amongst buzzing bees when taking honey from a hive. By association the !goin !goin has mnemonic potential and is capable of inducing co-presence with bees through the medium of sound. Thus, besides being used to move bees, the !goin !goin had an additional ritual role, which was to move people to dance the trance, or healing dance.

Vibroacoustics is known as such by the |Xam only because it is first a state of body intelligence, which in consonance with bee-sound imbues the body with !gi, or potency. Such insight is strengthened when we note that the word translated as beat, as in “the people beat the !goin !goin” or “beat the drum,” is the |Xam word !koukәn, also spelt !khaukәn, meaning to tremble.7 The implications are unequivocal; the trembling of the !goin !goin becomes a somatic experience felt as vibration in the body. Sound and vibration merge; both instrument and body tremble because in syntony they become synonymous. This suggests possibilities of communication, perhaps a proto-discourse, more ancient than words. In such a scenario there is no direct signification, of course, but assimilation and empathy arise on the basis of mimetic sound capacities. Out of this emerges a dialectic, obviously wordless, but nonetheless a dialogue of sorts, based on a correspondence of sound-vibration that the |Xam recognized. In turn, this mimetic and metamorphic relationship facilitated their intimate relationship with bees.

This knowledge is compelling and it accords with my own experience that afternoon years ago when I stood watching the bees pass through the veil of rock. To smell the honey redolent in the air, to be enveloped in sound and flying bees without harm, was to experience a fine vibration, a subtle state of consciousness.

Inspired by my own experience I built up an apiary of 130 bee hives. Each year, for over a decade, I harvested several tons of honey. In addition I migrated my hives to pollinate orchards of apple and pear. I learned much but I slowly became disillusioned by a mounting set of issues, now all too familiar: neonicotinoid pesticides, loss of habitat, eradication of nectar-producing plants, proliferation of electromagnetic waves and the ever-present pressures of commercialization and mechanization. My passion for bees was elevating and lucid but it slowly burned out. Any meaningful engagement with bees requires a re-evaluation, indeed demands rehabilitation of the senses and a recalibration of intelligence. This much I could understand but it took time before the way became clear again.

A honey hunter at a bees' nest, either smoking or using a plant charm (Matopos, Zimbabwe). International Bee Research Association poster based on Harald Pager tracing, South African Rock Art Digital Archive
A honey hunter at a bees’ nest, either smoking or using a plant charm (Matopos, Zimbabwe). International Bee Research Association poster based on Harald Pager tracing, South African Rock Art Digital Archive


When the flower blossoms, the bees will come.
—Sufi proverb

Aswarm of bees is an enigma; diverse but unified—having no firm outline, yet coherent. The idea finds its |Xam articulation in the following: “The bees, (  ) when the bees fly along in a body, they the Bushmen say, the bees go. One bee it is that which goes” (BC151 A2 1 087 07033 rev.). The switch from plural to singular conveys the idea: many are one, one is many. Interactions with this “bee body,” such as providing it with a hive, is in practice like making a home—a second body—to house the many. There is an esoteric aspect to be considered here. Swarming bees have been compared to a soul leaving the body (Steiner, Parabola 39.4) and by way of simile bees are considered representatives of an invisible world (Keats, Parabola 30.3). Furthermore, according to Keats, our world is “the vale of soul-making.” Do these hermetic references allude to incarnation or transubstantiation? Is this dispersion or an anointing? My own feeling is that bees are helpful in allowing us to think about and experience spirit in sensory terms and thereby concede to the intangibles that pervade the carnal life. From this perspective there is no transcendence which is not also a homecoming. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, like Steiner and Keats also of the Romantic tradition, brings an interesting insight to the topic. In a private letter, first quoting Keats, Rilke makes this observation:

We are the bees of the invisible world… We perpetually gather the honey of the visible world in order to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible one. [T]he work of this continual transformation of the beloved visible and comprehensible world into the invisible vibration and stimulation of our nature introduces new frequencies of vibration into the universal spheres of vibration. Since the various substances in the universe are only different rates of vibration…8

These observations return us to the subject of vibroaucoustics and bees, which in the last two to three decades has received intense attention. Interest is driven by concerns around CCD and the wish to preserve bees. On the other hand, what is learned from bees’ communication and their social organization is applicable to fields such as neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Generally this falls under the rubric known as “swarm intelligence.” Research has overturned the presumption that bees live in a rigid hierarchy and are without autonomy (see The Feminine Monarchie, 1609, Charles Butler). Rather, we now know that the cooperative efforts of bees are regulated by collective decisions that emerge through decentralized systems of non-hierarchical control, and that this modulates the social organism.

What is known as the “vibration signal” is the functional means by which modulation in a bee colony is achieved, but other sounds and vibration-producing activity occur: piping (wings together and wings apart), quacking, trembling, buzz running, waggle dancing, to name a few. Within the typical human auditory range, some, but not all, of these signals can be heard. What is interesting about this is twofold: there are aspects of the bee world that are inaccessible to humans (perhaps an as yet un-thought permutation of Keats’s invisible world). Secondly, there exists an idea, at least among the |Xam, that it is possible for humans to communicate with bees through sound and vibration, and that this enactment facilitates co-presence. Creating the conditions in which this possibility might be reproduced are difficult to replicate, if not impossible, although the notion remains intriguing and should not be discounted.

There exist numerous reflections on what it means to be a creature and how this might influence human creatureliness and conscience. Crossing the threshold depends on permeability and modality, which is why the |Xam example is so interesting. What the |Xam model demonstrates are the antithetical priorities of Western as opposed to hunting and foraging ontologies and our different orientations towards animals. Western ontology conforms to the idea that “we” evolved out of animality. In contrast, |Xam mythology explains an origin in which animals and people share a common humanity. Believing that animals were once people is a reality that constantly interrupts the living present. This helps to explain what gets painted and why therianthropes are so pervasive in |Xam spiritual understanding.

The challenges of empathizing with creatures (humans included) or being like a bee are daunting and we must accept this. Bees have an extremely sound- and vibration-sensitive anatomy. The classic study by Karl von Fritsch (1886–1982) of the bee waggle-dance earned a Nobel Prize (1973) but it has since been demonstrated that the recruits at any bee dance receive information through vibrations, not visually. The diagrams that illustrate the choreography of the waggle dance are, as it turns out, optically biased. The diagrams aid human understanding of intra-colony communication (a noble result to be sure) but do not depict what bees experience at all. The information that a dancing bee conveys is not “seen” so much as received (in the darkness of the hive) as vibration and sound.

The Agave Hive is made using an Agave log that is hollowed out and fitted with top-bar frames, and a woven landing platform inspired by the Sun Hive. Photograph by Neil Rusch
The Agave Hive is made using an Agave log that is hollowed out and fitted with top-bar frames, and a woven landing platform inspired by the Sun Hive. Photograph by Neil Rusch


One only owns the hive, I suppose, never the bees.
—Russell Hoban (Turtle Diary, 1975)

As I sit writing about bees it puts me in touch with primary experiences and I ask myself: does this act of writing not bring bees closer and into presence, in some way? Surely, all bee mythology points in this direction? Furthermore, do the texts and stories describe bees? Or are bees helping us to express our intangible thoughts and experiences?

Some sort of symbiotic process like this must have been operative when the idea came to me: I would design and make a hive. The hive would embody all my knowledge about bees, including my shift in thinking. Habitual ideas would be discarded and if the hive were harmonious (in the bee-sense of the word) it would welcome and attract bees.

Drawing inspiration from tree beekeeping and sculptor Guenther Muncke’s Sun Hive, the choice was simple. I harvested the lower trunk of an Agave aloe. Once the log was harvested it, became a pedagogical process, making and learning as I went along—head, body, and all senses engaged.

The sharp knife cuts into the heartwood removing pithy slices. Work progresses. I slip my hand into the cavity that is being created and each time it provides a measure of the increasing volume. My fingers feel the inside surface of the hard casing. The tactile experience makes it easier to visualize the honey combs, catenary curves, and hexagonal cells, and I shape the inside of the log accordingly.

Every so often I pause. The wood I remove produces a pleasant earthy odor, like nothing I’ve smelled before. I wonder about that. Will the bees approve? I bring my face close to the entrance of the log and take a deep breath. I pause as I put myself in place of the bees inside the cavity. I imagine telluric and aerial forces co-mingling. It will be okay, I think. No, it’s absolutely perfect, I decide.

Using only a knife and scorper, the work imparts a sense of well-being. No need for chain-saw and no fumes or noise. This meets my approval as it will that of the bees, I’m sure. The inside of the log will be coated with propolis, a plant resin envelope with antimicrobial properties that the bees will collect. Thinking about the thermoregulation of the colony, I leave 12mm of pithy coating as insulation on the inside wall of the hive. I melt bees wax and paint it onto the log’s outer surface. The wood is dry and hard but the wax soaks in nicely. It’s a seal against rain and weather and the wax coating will give the hive longevity.

Before closing the hive, top and bottom, I run my hand one last time, feeling the inside surface. About thirty to forty liters of volume, I guess? Ultimately, the bees will decide. Scout bees will make a 3-D assessment using their antennae and vibration to do that.

Lastly, the landing platform. I use rods of cane that bend easily to form the right shape. I weave jute string between the splayed cane spokes affixed to a central karee wood hub. This creates a landing surface that I paint with molten wax to complete the task. The entire hive consists of organic material with no straight, flat or rectangular corners, as I imagine the bees would want.

I suspend the hive fifteen feet above the ground. It hangs off a branch in the tree in whose shade I made the hive. Within a matter of hours, half a dozen or so bees are showing interest. The number of scouts steadily increases as the days go by. Then, a week after completion, a swarm moves into the hive. Initially the workers devote their efforts to raising brood. A month later there’s comb and honey. The bees are back! Their arrival is a homecoming, both for them and me.


He who loves honey should be patient with the stinging of the bees.
—Moorish proverb

Each morning with the sunrise and my first cup of coffee I sit with the bees, quietly watching and sensing. I know the hive intimately. The smells and sounds emitted tell me with precision what is happening inside. Sometimes, during the morning ritual, it feels as if I’m breathing with the bees. Or, is it the bees breathing me?♦



E. Valli and D. Summers, The Honey Hunters of Nepal. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988).

2  B. Walsh, “The Plight of the Honey Bee.” Time, August 19, 2013.

3 R. Steiner, Nine Lectures on Bees. (Spring Valley, N.Y.:St. George Publications, 1964), 15.

4 dhikr is the Arabic for recollection, remembrance, or invocation.

5  The Digital Bleek and Lloyd Archive: http://lloydbleekcollection.cs.uct.ac.za/

6  N. Rusch, Sound artefacts: re-creating and reconnecting the sound of the !goin !goin with the southern San Bushmen and beesHunter and Gatherer Research Vol.3 No.2 

7 D.F. Bleek, A Bushman Dictionary. (New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 1956).

8  Rilke, letter to his Polish translator, November 13, 1925. G.I. Gurdjieff expounds a not dissimilar proposition: all materiality equates to vibration; all vibration has materiality. He considers the nature of the soul to be like that of the physical body, it also is matter—only, it consists of “finer matter” and is not pre-given but requires “intentional blending” to develop. The Sarmãn Society, a source of Gurdjieff’s training and knowledge, is associated with bees, which in name at least is linked to the old Persian word for bee, according to John Bennett, Gurdjieff: Making A New World, London: Turnstone Books, 1976), 56–57.

From Parabola Volume 43, No. 3, “The Journey Home,” Fall 2018. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing


By Neil Rusch

Neil Rusch is an honorary research associate at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He designs and publishes books, dealing with oral tradition, cultural heritage, and pre-history.