- Books, Literature, and Writing
Poems about Bees
My interest in bees, which has been boosted by the antics of the white tailed bumble bees nesting in my shed, has meant that I am looking for and finding bees all over the countryside. I was quite surprised when I noticed that they were appearing in a lot of the poetry I've been reading as well.
Bee Poems from England
English writers seem to have used bees in a very straight forward fashion. They have most often been used to create a summery, lazy day’s atmosphere. Although there are some eloquent lines, on the whole the bee is part of the scene rather then the focus of the poem, for example:
John Clare (1793-1864) wrote
“…….The green-swathed grasshopper, on treble pipe,
Sings there, and dances, in mad-hearted pranks;
There bees go courting every flower that's ripe,
On baulks and sunny banks……”
'Bees Go Courting every Flower That's Ripe' (John Clare)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) begins and ends his poem ‘Inscription for a Fountain on a Heath’ with Bees. He opens with “This Sycamore, oft musical with bees” and closes with “hum of murmuring bees!”
Jean Ingelow (1820-1897) in a poem about late spring which appears to be untitled wrote “O velvet bee, you’re a dusty fellow, You’ve powdered your legs with gold!”
Continuing the theme in her poem ‘Bell Heather’ EM Holden wrote
‘Away o’er the brow of the hill that is
Purple with heather;
Where the pasturing bees hum alone
Thro’ the long summer day…..”
Shakespeare (1564-1616) also had something to say about bees with “Where the bee sucks, there suck I: In a cowslip’s bell I lie;….” But like the other English writers is doing nothing more exciting with bees then using them as part of a description of a summer’s day amongst flowers.
Anne Stevenson (1933-present) was born in America, but is currently living in England. Her use of bees in a poem is more interesting and shows a deeper understanding of bees’ behaviour. She wrote ‘The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves’ which I think must be about English bumble bees since it describes a sight I am very familiar with. Her poem describes how bees pollinate foxgloves and includes the line ‘foxgloves come out to advertise for rich bumbling hummers’
The Pasturing Bees Hum Alone (EM Holden)
Bee Poems from America
Fortunately for us, American writers have been much more adventurous with their use of bees in poetry, even back in the 19th century, when Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote ‘Fame is a Bee’. It is short and sweet, but still very true today.
“Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.”
One of the quirkiest poems in which bees play a notable part in is ‘The Girl with Bees in her Hair’ by Eleanor Wilner (1937-present). The bees in this poem are a metaphor for a burden of dread. To start with the girl’s ‘midnight hair’ is ‘lively with bees’ flying in and out, but then suddenly ‘the bees began to stream out of her hair’ and they enter a house via an open window, freeing the girl of her burden.
Jean Valentine (1934 – present) wrote ‘Bees’ with the opening lines “A man whose arms and shoulders and hands and face and ears are covered with bees” as the man is in terrible pain from the bees, it seems that again they are being used to convey the idea of a burden although this time I think it’s more about the burden of the pain that life in general brings.
David Sullivan in ‘The Day the Beekeeper Died: Sulaymaniyah’ also writes of a person covered in bees, but here it is the deceased beekeeper’s daughter who intentionally smears herself with honey from the hive to attract the bees to her, feeling their ‘feather-like wings churn in her ears’. The bees remind her of her father and make her feel loved.
Maya Angelou (1928-present) in her poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’ uses bees in a simile describing how men behave around a woman with sex appeal “......Then they swarm around me, A hive of honey bees......”
Another living poet, Bruce Mackinnon in ‘The Bees’ begins his poem “One day the bees start wandering off, no one knows why” comparing a hive of bees to a brain and the gradual loss of bees in a failing hive to Alzheimer’s disease.
One Day the Bees start Wandering off (Bruce Mackinnon)
Lee Ann Roripaugh in ‘Transplanting’ describes her parents’ arrival in New Mexico and their drive up to the mountains “…..where air crackled with the sizzling collision of bees……”
John Ciardi (1916-1986) wrote ‘Bees and Morning Glory’ which like Anne Stevenson’s poem above is an excellent piece of natural history writing as well as being a really good poem. His bees are wonderfully described as “hunchback bees in pirate pants and with peg-leg hooks”
Hailey Leithauser (1954-present) also manages to be humorous about bees with her poem
‘Was You ever Bit by a Dead Bee?’ She answers her title question with “I was, I was—by its posthumous chomp….”
Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) is humorous, but also very earnest, railing against scientific knowledge in ‘The Horrid Voice of Science’ which begins "There's machinery in the butterfly; There's a mainspring to the bee….”
There's a Mainspring to a Bee (Vachel Lindsay)
I shall give the final word to Susan Kinsolving. Her poem ‘Trust’ includes a line when she asks us to trust that billions of bees “…find unidentified flowers on unmapped marshes and mountains…”. It's a request which is becoming difficult to do in reality given that bee populations in many countries are in worrying decline.