September 25, 2012 Leave a comment
By Rob Packer
If bees didn’t exist, poets would have had to invent them: mechanical, organic, strange and beautiful, they make honey—for centuries one of man’s few sources of sugar, until sugar-making techniques were developed in Asia—, they sting but so doing take their own life and they live in a highly ordered caste society that at first glance look chaotic.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that they have a long history in poetry: in Virgil’s Georgics (worth reading if you haven’t already), the bee colony seems not too far from Platonic Ideal City and stands as Rome’s model for the future after the chaos of its civil war. Shakespeare also comes to a similar Virgil-inspired moment in Henry V when the Archbishop of Canterbury gets Hal off to France with a judicious bee metaphor. In today’s post-Renaissance individualism, however, the bee colony as very deterministic model for the polis sounds tasteless, with its echoes from Brave New World to The Matrix. And the analogy may have fallen out of fashion amongst male poets, once science proved that the ‘bee emperor’ is a queen—listen to this essay by Adam Gopnik for more. But the fascination with the strangeness and our need for bees continues to this day from Sylvia Plath to Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees (2011) and this year’s Bee Journal by Sean Borodale. Read more of this post