Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Buccaneers of Buzz

I can't pretend to be a huge fan of these increasingly humid English summers, whose oppressive stuffiness tires me all day and keeps me from sleeping most of the night, but the regularity of heavy rain and sun have injected a vigorous colour into the flora of the valley, which has evidently been good news for bees, and it is certainly a joy to watch the abundances of bees bouncing from flower to flower, who, to quote Emily Dickinson, Ride abroad in ostentation / And subsist on Fuzz.


There are around 20,000 species of bees worldwide, though in Britain the name primarily conjures images of just two varieties: bumble bees and honey bees, and in particular the garden bumble bee (Bombus hortorum) and the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera).  I feel it is clear from her descriptions that Emily Dickinson's fantastic short poem Bees Are Black... was inspired by bees of the Bombus, bumble bee, genus:

Bees are Black, with Gilt Surcingles -
Buccaneers of Buzz.
Ride abroad in ostentation
And subsist on Fuzz.

Fuzz ordained - not Fuzz contingent -
Marrows of the Hill.
Jugs - a Universe's fractures
Could not jar or spill.

In Virgil's Georgics, bees are described in accordance with the various roles and tasks in which they are observed by the author:

These drudge in fields abroad, and those at home
Lay deep foundations for the labour'd comb,
With dew, narcissus leaves, and clammy gum.
To pitch the waxen flooring some contrive;
Some nurse the future nation of the hive;


                                                                                       while almost two centuries later, the great American transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson would ascribe to bees a rather more celestial nature, while nonetheless reverting to a language of Classical metaphor which Virgil would have well understood:

Insect lover of the sun,
Joy of thy dominion!
Sailor of the atmosphere;
Swimmer through the waves of air;
Voyager of light and noon;
Epicurean of June


 Emerson credits the insects with a certain godly detachment from worldly rubbish, and in citing their situation among beautiful flowers, paints a mirror image of bees almost as flying flowers themselves:

Aught unsavoury or unclean
Hath my insect never seen;
But violets and bilberry bells,
Maple sap and daffodels,
Grass with green flag half-mast high,
Succory to match the sky,
Columbine with horn of honey,
Scented fern, and agrimony,
Clover, catch fly, adders-tongue,
And brier-roses dwelt among;


 Another great American poet, Sylvia Plath, was to paint slightly different pictures of bees, having taken up bee-keeping in Devon in June 1962, in her series of poems written in later that same year.  Plath's father, a professor of Entomology, was an authority on bees, and his 1934 book Bumblebees and Their Ways remains highly regarded to this day, and, having moved to the Devon village of North Tawton, with her husband, Ted Hughes, and their daughter in September 1961, Sylvia herself was to capture the behaviour of bees with characteristic eye for detail:

The white hive is snug as a virgin
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

For her descriptions of the practicalities of beekeeping, Plath is commended by Mary Montaut of The Dublin Beekeepers' Association, who writes on the group's website:

As a good beginner, Plath has obviously read the right books and knows about queens killing off rivals:

“While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins
Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight…”

and for her perfect linguistic responses to the bees' behaviour:

She calls the angry sound of the bee box, “furious Latin”, which somehow catches the feeling I always have when the bees are cross, of their high-pitched communication of outrage.
Or how about this for a description of stings?

“The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.”

Elsewhere, Mary observes:

And the final poem of the sequence, Wintering, brings into sharp focus the anxiety I suppose all beekeepers feel as they close the hives for the winter:

“Will the hive survive?”
a poignancy made all the more troubling when we know of Plath’s own failure to survive that winter.  But the end of the poem is not pessimistic –

“The bees are flying.  They taste the spring.”

In our own times, growing attention has been paid to the plight of  bees and to maintaining their vital but endangered presence in the eco-system.  In her debut collection Bee Purple (Oversteps, 2002), Mandy Pannett evokes a sense of bees and their instincts as desegregated from a world continually threatened, in the context of their own peculiar powers and environmental perception, and the metaphorical implications this may hold for the wider Universe:

... there is purple, bee 
purple, a vegetable shade for the bees' eyes only,
an insect world of the ultra violet that we
can't see.

So the ancient gods have shot up to the stars
and there's no space in the macrocosm
for man at the centre controlling the threads;

just an apian myth, maybe 

Never a day goes by that I am not immensely grateful to the part played by bees in sustaining our eco-system and supporting my own life in the process.  Like most people, I have been unavoidably aware of these flashy, striped symbols of summer for as long as I can remember, and it is perhaps their ubiquity that has delayed my impulse to write of them - though their visibility is largely confined to the warmer months, bees are so familiar as to be somewhat part of the furniture, and, despite having authored a collection of poems entirely inspired by "Little Creatures", it was only recently that I found myself committing to paper any concrete observations of the wonderful world of bees.  This is what I came up with - short and simple, and focusing on just one group of bees, but, I hope, going some way to conveying the impressive presence of the brilliant bee.


Slotting in and out of borders,
jazzy flashes,
neon-banded black-jacks,
jet-jewelled amber sparks
dive and jive 
among Astrantia, garden mint and chives,

paint wobbly dots in beds of borage,
setting feverfew alight,
freckle waves of rain
in beads of fire-opal,
zircon wisps,
stripey stars
igniting galaxies of nectar.


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