Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Birds and Bees and Martyred Priest Essence of Valentine's Day

February 14 is Valentine's Day. It's named after a fellow by the name of Valentine who lived in ancient Rome during the third century. Valentine was a priest, and legend holds that he had problems with the Emperor of the time, Claudius. The priest, it is said, continued to perform marriages against the orders of the Emperor and was thrown in jail as a result.

St. Valentine ultimately was beaten to death and beheaded, maybe on the 14th day of February. For sure, Pope Gelasius set aside that date to honor the fallen priest.

February 14 had been a day to honor Juno, the goddess of marriage, in the Roman Empire. So, when the soon-to-be-martyred marrying priest left a message with the jailer's daughter who had befriended him signed “Love from your Valentine,” the rest, as they say, is history.

It is easy to see why hearts and Cupid play a role in the thoughts and decorations of Valentine's day. After all, love is a matter of the heart and Cupid, with his bows and arrows, for thousands of years has symbolized the love-struck. But what about the birds and bees?

Birds have long been recognized for their courtship antics. The song and dance of courting male birds adds a rather romantic flair to their mate-seeking activities. Some birds even mate for life and appear to mourn over the loss of a mate—a Valentine Hallmark moment if ever there was one!

But what about the bees? Why do they have an honored place when it comes to matters of the heart? Maybe it is the association of the bee with flowers. At least to some romantic poets that appears to be the case. Emily Dickinson laments that to the bee, separation from the rose was the greatest misery.

Maybe it is all the attention that the queen bee garners from her workers. After all, the workers groom, feed and fuss over the old gal all the days of her life.

Or is it the honey that bees produce? No natural substance is sweeter than honey, and Valentine's Day is certainly about sweets.

Maybe it's the romantic nature of the mating flight of the honey bee queen. The young queen leaves the hive where she was hatched and mates on the wing. It was this mating flight that inspired E. B. White to compose a poem on the subject. Entitled “Song of the Queen Bee,” the poem was inspired by a U.S. Agricultural Bulletin on artificial insemination of the queen.

In his poem, White has the narrating bee question in true romantic fashion the wisdom of artificial insemination. The poem begins:

“When the air is wine and the wind is free
And the morning sits on the lovely lea
And sunlight ripples on every tree,
Then love-in-air is the thing for me—”

The poem concludes with:

“I'm devil-may-care and I'm fancy free,
Love in the air is the thing for me,
Oh, it's simply rare
In the beautiful air,
And I wish to state
That I'll always mate
With whatever drone I encounter.”

While St. Valentine might not have condoned the method that the queen bee uses to choose her mate, he no doubt would have appreciated her attitude.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox