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Honey bees have sweetened literary works for centuries
On Six Legs
By Tom Turpin

No insect has had a longer positive association with humankind than the honey bee. For approximately 500,000 years, humans have engaged in honey hunting. We, like some other animal species, possess a sweet tooth. And nothing soothes the sweet cravings of the savage beast better than honey.

In 3000 B.C., the Egyptians had a government official who was responsible to the pharaoh for collecting wild honey from the desert. The Hebrew scriptures reference honey as early as 1700 B.C.

Around the eighth century B.C., the Greek writer Homer describes bees and honey in the “Iliad.”

Around 25 B.C., the Roman writer Pliny the Elder mentions honey collection from crevices in rocks.

It is not surprising that such a long human association has resulted in honey bees in literary renderings. Writers of all ilk address things that they know, and most people know about honey bees and honey. William Shakespeare mentions honey bees in his works. He employs a honey bee colony to address a contentious point in “Henry V.”

In the play, King Henry is considering an invasion of France. The king’s advisors are divided on the wisdom of such a move. Some feel that the Scots might seize the moment to invade England from the north and necessitate a war on two fronts.

The Duke of Exeter believes that England could handle a war with both the Scots and the French. The Archbishop of Canterbury agrees and cites honey bee biology to bolster the point that people and bees can do different jobs to accomplish a singular goal. The passage includes references to bees collecting material from flowers and carrying it to the hive, constructing combs and killing drones. Good biology. But the Bard makes an error when he refers to the honey bee king. After all, it is a female - a queen - that is the ruler of the honey bee colony.

Tolstoy, in his classic tome “War and Peace,” also uses the analogy of a honey bee colony to make a point. In this case, the colony is a “queenless” hive. The analogy is used to describe the city of Moscow as the French army approaches. The city is said to be listless, not a normal, active city. There is activity but without enthusiasm. Similar to a honey bee hive that is missing a queen - work continues but, in reality, the hive is dying!

One of the interesting inclusions of honey bees in literature is describing the process known as “telling the bees.” Telling the bees is an old custom that was thought to be necessary upon the death of a beekeeper.

The idea was that the bees would leave the hive, a biological process known as “absconding.” The bees, it is said, need to be assured that someone will take care of them, since their keeper has died. John Greenleaf Whittier and Eugene Field both wrote poems entitled “Telling the Bees.”

An interesting poem about bees was written by a little-known Hoosier poet named James Elmore. His poem “When the Bees Begin to Swarm” is about trying to get a swarm of bees to land so they could be placed in a hive.

Each stanza begins with the line, “Go get the pans, and blow the horn.” This refers to the idea that if you make enough noise, the queen will land so that the swarm can be captured. There is no scientific evidence that noise-making works, but the old tale persists in some quarters to this day.

Ogden Nash, in his poem “The Bird to the Bees,” describes a bee following him around relentlessly. Nash references honey, suggesting the bee is a honey bee. But the behavior he describes is more like that of a yellow jacket wasp than a honey bee. Yellow jackets are often confused with honey bees, since they are about the same size and are a yellowish color with black stripes.

James Whitcomb Riley wrote a poem called “The Bumblebee.” The title suggests that Riley thought he was stung by a bumble bee. But the stinging bee left a stinger in the poet’s arm. Honey bees leave their stinger, but other bees and wasps do not. So Riley was stung by a honey bee.

Oh well, poets are like the rest of us and can’t always tell one insect from another!

This farm news was published in the Nov. 15, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.