“How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the Day
From ev’ry op’ning Flow’r!”
“How skillfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.”
“With these exclamatory and somewhat clumsy lines, Isaac Watts apotheosized the honey bee in his Divine Songs in 1720; and by making the lowly bee a noble exemplum for the dilatory to emulate, he was paying the ultimate tribute to the symbol of an age. Startling as it seems, the bee, a mere insect, was consistently glorified by that most sophisticated and urbane of cultures, Augustan England. What the lark was to the Elizabethans, the rose to the Cavaliers, the nightingale to the Romantics, the bee was to the Queen Anne wits, detesters of the outdoors almost to a man. Swift, Addison, Pope, Gay, Arbuthnot, Mandeville – all delighted in writing about the bee; and among them, with the aid of Dryden, Temple, Eustace Budgell and Goldsmith, they turned the honey bee into a virtual paradigm of Neo-Classicism.”
“This is not to say that the bee was a symbol peculiar to Restoration and XVIIIth-century men of letters. In Euphues and His England (1580), John Lyly hit upon the happy phrase, “busie as a bee.” Shakespeare used the bee to enforce his images of sweetness (Julius Caesar, V.1.34) and ubiquity (The Tempest, V.1.88). Sir John Suckling in “A Ballad upon a Wedding” emphasized the voluptuous quality of a lady’s mouth by saying it was as red and curved as if a bee had stung it; and John Cleveland constructed an elaborate metaphysical conceit in complimenting a lady as being sweet enough to delude a bee. Milton, Marvell, and Coley made casual references to bees. And in the XIXth and XXth centuries, poets have referred to contented bees in foxgloves, bees murmuring innumerably, bees unconcerned with pedigreed clover, and bees making glades loud on the Lake of Innisfree.”
From “That Neo-Classical Bee” by James W. Johnson