How the Honey Bee Got its Stinger

This will sound like a Rudyard Kipling  Just So Tale. But it goes back a lot further than the early 1900s. The Bee and Jupiter is credited to Aesop, of Aesop’s Fables Plus Punchline fame – and he lived 2,400 years ago.

Here’s the story:

cartoon bee with honeyA king bee visited Jupiter on Mount Olympus and gave him some delicious fresh honey. Jupiter was greatly pleased so he promised to give the king of bees anything he wanted.

“Give bees a stinger that kills so we can defend our honey from the race of man,” said the bee.

ZeusJupiter loved the race of man and didn’t want humans killed by bees’ stingers, but he had to keep his promise. Even today, bees have stingers that kill.  But clever Jupiter set things up so that the bee would be the one that the stinger kills.  Jupiter was true to his word, the bee got a sting that kills, and Aesop’s punchline, or moral, to his story is:
“Evil wishes, like chickens, come home to roost.”

Of course you know that this is just a tale and part of the story is wrong: Aesop was Greek, so the god would have been Zeus, not Jupiter. And bees have queens, not kings. Other than that, I suppose the story is pretty accurate, except from an evolutionary biologist’s point of view (but they like to use science to spoil everything).

You may have noticed that Aesop adds roosting chickens to the story, even though it’s a tale about bees and gods. I don’t know why he did that, or if it’s an apocryphal add-on, but now we know the reason that bees have stingers and chickens come home to roost. Sort of like killing two birds (or one bird and a bee) with one stinger. And maybe that’s where that old adage originated.

Jupiter and the Bee, from a 1479 woodcut in Aesop Fables

Jupiter and the Bee, from a 1479 woodcut in Aesop Fables

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Culture, or lack thereof, History, Humour, Killer Bees, Stings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How the Honey Bee Got its Stinger

  1. Lona says:

    Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Claer says:

    Just to note – Jupiter is the Roman name for Zeus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks! Good point! I named my piece after the 1479 woodcut of the same name, but Zeus would be more appropriate in the context of Aesop and the use of Mount Olympus in the fable.


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