Rome's best Barberini bees, by my reckoning, are those rising up to heaven in Pietro da Cortona's "Triumph of Divine Providence", the painting that covers the ceiling of the grand salon in the Palazzo Barberini. And what was the "triumph" that was so providential? Why, it was nothing less than the elevation of the Barberini family to the Papacy in the person of Urban VIII. Urban's three crowns, the laurel of the poet, the starry ring of providence (not the EU), and the Papal crown are all clearly proffered. Significantly, Urban VIII himself is not portrayed. It's the golden Barberini bees -- representing the whole family -- that are flying up to heaven.
But why bees? How did the Barberini latch on to that particular symbol? It's not that their name simply begins with the letter "B". Bees represent teamwork and industriousness, two well-known Barberini characteristics, but that interpretation was added later. No, the bees represent iconographic social climbing.
The Barberini family originally were the Tafani da Barberino, sprung from the village of Barberino in the Elsa Valley near Florence. As they moved up the social ladder and transferred first to Florence and eventually to Rome, they quickly dropped the Tafani family name, which had rather unpleasant connotations, and adopted the Barberini name of their village, a common enough practice. The family crest had to be upgraded too. And so three golden bees replaced the three golden horseflies which had themselves replaced the three common black horseflies (=Tafani) that had original graced the family coat of arms. Who'd want to be called Pope Urban VIII Horsefly anyway?
The Barberino Val d'Elsa web site
item on the Tafani da Barberino (English version is on the lower part of
The Insects in Heraldry page from
Heraldica.org. Scroll down to the picture of the Arms of Urban VIII in
St. Peters and the accompanying explanation. ("Azure three bees or" is
heraldic jargon for "three golden bees on a blue background.")
Tafania, one of the original Barberini
properties in Tuscany, is available: