When I was a graduate student living in Oregon, a colony of bees built a hive in the wall of my garage apartment. I didn't notice their presence until one day I came home to find them swarming around a hole in the siding in a bulbous-black and unnervingly loud mass. Some days after that I’d find about a dozen of them inside my house. They'd crawl across walls and windows, confused about how exactly to get back to their hive. They’d pace up and down the screen behind the sliding glass door—my only door—and (because I had a slight fear of bees) I’d spend an embarrassingly long time debating how to free them without getting stung, or if I should leave the house at all. While my landlord secured a beekeeper to transport the colony, I became obsessively fascinated by them. Once I pressed my ear against the wall and listened to their hum and swell. I wrote a poem about them. I read Virgil's fourth Georgic, wherein "bees own a share of the divine soul and drink in the ether of space" and "the rotting blood of the ox has brought forth bees." I also discovered cool facts about them, such as:
- They can barely see red, but they can see a mystery color—UV light—called “bee purple.” The International Bee Research Association explains: “When you look at a white flower, the petals just look white. But, when a bee looks at a white flower it also sees lines that guide it down to the nectar—these lines reflect UV light and are invisible to us, but to the bee they are 'bee purple.’”
- In 1997, a mathematician named Barbara Shipman proposed that bees can not only perceive quarks, but that they use these quarks to choreograph their dances.
- Even if bees can’t see quarks, they can see polarized light, which allows them to navigate using a solar compass. They can sense the position of the sun, and use that information to communicate—or “dance’—the coordinates of food sources to other bees. They conduct all these complicated calculations and navigations with a brain the size of a sesame seed.
- As this list at Mental Floss notes, bees’ brains “stop aging” when they “do jobs usually reserved for younger members” and they can “recognize human faces.” Their brains also "rewire" themselves when they adopt new tasks.
- Bees have been to space (my own personal dream)! Discover Magazine reports: "On the April 1984 Challenger flight, 3,300 bees, housed in a special but confining box, adapted perfectly to zero gravity and built a nearly normal comb." But the bees wouldn't defecate out there; they held in their excrement for seven days.
The bees have been disappearing en masse, abandoning hives that still have live queens, capped brood, and ample stores of honey and pollen. Colony Collapse Disorder is real, unfortunately, and the cause—at least the theory of the moment—appears to be a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, though other contributors include parasites, pathogens, malnutrition, and climate change. The disruption and decline of bee populations has already affected agricultural production, and this segment at The Guardian reports that of the 100 crop species responsible for providing 90% of food, 71 require bee pollination, and that certain species of flower will go extinct without bees. Bees are not only fascinating—they are essential. And so for today I have gathered some work for an informal poetic tribute: a handful of poems that immortalize the bee, which has captivated and inspired artists and scientists alike for thousands of years.
Play in Which Darkness Falls
Two girls runaway from the Home. They have a revolver
in their possession. The Sisters Of Our Lady have given up
looking for them, returning in the night with soft candles.
The sleek clouds have thrown their riders, and the bees
are returning to the honey, the clover at the edge of the
cliff black as eyelids, damp as blue mussels flexing at the moon.
The girls look in the stolen mirror, then throw their shoes
in the sea. They take off one another’s dress, posing
on the rocks that jut out over the faded water of the last days.
The clover beat down from their splendid feet, the clover
quiet like a vault. Nearby in a ship named for early death,
I drink wine like a city. Anchored far off the continent of love.
Strange, but bees do not die in their own honey, and how the dead
are toted off, how the sweet moons are deposited in the catacombs.
The clover at the edge of the sea like a chemise, place
where animals have lain. They help one another with their hair,
their dresses blowing back to land. They look over the
cliff, spit on the beach. Birds I have never seen going by.
To Solita Salinas
in the orange grove.
Little gold bees
were out after honey.
And where can
the honey be?
It’s in the blue blossom,
In the bloom
of that rosemary plant.
(A little gold seat
for the Moor.
A seat that glitters
for his wife.)
in the orange grove.
--Federico García Lorca (trans. Alan S. Trueblood)
Who came upon me once
Stretched under apple-trees just after bathing,
Why did you not strangle me before speaking
Rather than fill me with the wild white honey of your words
And then leave me to the mercy
Of the forest bees.
neither for me honey nor the honey bee
--Sappho (trans. Anne Carson)