In Flanders fields, where the poppies blow, bees also like to hang out. But in Belgium and elsewhere, those pollinators are having a tough run. “Colony collapse disorder” is a now familiar if still terrifying term of art; “Israeli acute paralysis virus” is newer, but it hardly makes one warm in the heart. Other basic challenges are omnipresent and perhaps more surprising. Take habitat loss. Only a small fraction of bees actually live in hives and produce honey. The vast majority live underground, so concrete jungles don’t simply eliminate food sources, such as nectar and pollen, they also wipe out the very places in which so many bees burrow and brood.
In Belgium, where I live, various governmental and non-governmental organizations have sought to undo some of the damage. There’s the Week of the Bee and Maai Mei Niet (No‑Mow May), which turned out to be a huge success when it was launched this year. Organizers claimed it helped preserve food sources for more than five million bees. My town of Ghent, a medieval city of about 250,000, has also done its part. Last year it was given an award by the Vereniging Voor Openbaar Groen (Association for Public Green Spaces) for the Maaseikplein, a one-time parking lot next to St. Bavo’s Cathedral that was transformed into a small urban oasis cordoned off by plots of native flowers. For this and other initiatives, the same organization awarded Ghent its highest rating — three bees! — and named it a “bijenvriendelijke gemeente” (bee-friendly municipality).
Most programs for bee maintenance have emerged in the past twenty years or so. Those efforts accelerated following a 2014 report that revealed Belgium had the highest bee mortality rate in Europe. Such programs also extend to our neighbours: France, Luxembourg, Germany, and the Netherlands. On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I witnessed one low-key initiative in action at the Sarphatipark: a designated wild bee and honeybee garden of blooming sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, blue salvias, and medlar trees, whose apple-like offspring are also horrifyingly if aptly known as “open-arse” fruits, a can’t-be-unseen colonic metaphor.
My favourite initiative is painfully old-fashioned: the sheep that graze along the canals of Ghent (they can even be followed online using the city’s real-time sheep tracker). By early summer, the canals around the city and the embankments of the Watersportbaan, a phallically shaped rowing channel known affectionately among local anglophones as the Water Penis, are typically hip deep in grasses and wildflowers. And because the steeply graded walls aren’t exactly riding-mower friendly, about seventy fleet-footed woolly ones fill the void, slowly munching their way across town between mid-April and November. The herd is led by Willem Reyniers, a twenty-one-year-old from Antwerp who won the job last spring after the old shepherd, Hamdi Repaj, retired. Repaj, originally from Albania, was the “first” Ghent shepherd. He learned the trade from his father and had held the position since 2010, when the city reintroduced its herd.
There has been a slight hitch, though: the new shepherd is teamed up with the old shepherd’s dog, Jimmy, who understands only Albanian. Nonetheless, this is Willem’s “dream job,” as he told local reporters last spring. It’s easy to see why. I often spot Willem, Jimmy, and the herd in various corners of the city as I bike to and fro. In the evenings, you can sometimes find the bleating kind camped out by the arts conservatory, on the sprawling grassy grounds of a former medieval hospital and monastery. This new-found old-fashioned method is a practical alternative to mowing with huge benefits for local bee populations. Flowers are allowed longer growing cycles, which provide additional food for bees and more seeds for the ground, creating a virtuous circle of pollination and regrowth. Sheep also tend to be sloppy clear-cutters. They leave behind just enough foliage and help spread seeds through their droppings and coats.
Premature springtime mowing, especially along roadways rich in wildflowers, nonetheless continues to be a problem in Belgium. It’s especially bad in the largely agricultural region of West Flanders, which is bordered by a sixty-kilometre stretch of beach that has itself been largely ruined by oppressive blocks of vacation-apartment towers and is embarrassingly referred to as the Belgian Riviera. Monaco it is not, but in the mid-twentieth century Flanders’s slice of the North Sea held some inexplicable appeal, attracting celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich to Knokke-Heist, a tony coastal town with some of the most expensive real estate in Belgium and a once ritzy casino that has lured tourists for almost a century. (The town is also a supporter of “beeodiversity,” as its website proudly proclaims.) That West Flemings have become the accidental persecutors of bees is a rude paradox, given how many livelihoods turn on the availability of free pollinating labour: think potatoes for frietjes and Limburg pears. One of my favourite drinks, Hommelbier (literally “bumblebee beer”), even comes from Poperinge, in West Flanders.
Convincing Belgians to mow less, to let more go to seed, is at times tough sledding. So too in the suburbs of Toronto, where I grew up, and where anti-dandelion sentiment flourishes, even though paardenbloemen (horse-flowers), as they’re known here, produce edible greens and a cheap and ready source of food for bees. Unlike the Bruxellois and Walloons to the south, who don’t really care what you think about their front yards, Flemings can be a buttoned-down bunch, and lawn maintenance in Flanders falls somewhere between papal edict and psychological compulsion. As one local friend joked, there’s an easy way to tell the difference between an introvert and an extrovert in Flanders: the introvert looks at his own shoes while talking to you; the extrovert looks at your shoes. According to many Flemings, a kempt front yard is a synecdoche for tidy homes, hard work, and personal responsibility.
I’ve often biked past such homeowners as they diligently toil away, sometimes on hands and knees with a butter knife, at other times with a miniature flame-thrower, to remove every last trace of greenery from beige, taupe, and grey paving stones — what we might think of as the unofficial rainbow flag of emotional repression. The result is not only less food and habitat for wildlife but also barren driveways and bloodless front yards, especially among the houses built over the last fifty years. No surprise that these denuded homes have also sprung their own cottage industry: an Instagram account and not one but two books titled Ugly Belgian Houses. They stand in stark contrast to some of my favourite homes in the region, including a small eighteenth-century farmhouse on the outskirts of Ghent, in De Pinte, whose unkempt yard of crooked trees and vibrant wildflowers hosts a sun-drenched field of daisies every spring, in all their cheugy glory.
With their super-organism structure, home-cum-manufactory hives, royal hierarchies and divisions of labour, and lovably buzzy fuzziness, bees are insects ready-made for figuration. In Greek and Roman mythology, they routinely show up in the underworld, mythical creatures “intimately connected with, if not actually embodying, the soul,” as Arthur Bernard Cook put it in 1895. John Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Georgics —“Some have taught / That Bees have Portions of Etherial Thought”— even today offers a straightforward summary of standing apicultural sentiment.
The hive itself has likewise served for millennia as a ready analogy for political systematizing. In the Iliad, a group of leaders and soldiers gather like “tribes of swarming bees.” Hives are small-scale societies, living micro-metaphors that reflect back at us whatever we project onto them. For the Anglo-Dutch writer Bernard Mandeville, those industrious little bugs “liv’d like Men.” From his Fable of the Bees, a provoking work of doggerel poetry and eyebrow-raising philosophy from the early eighteenth century:
A Spacious Hive well stockt with Bees,
That liv’d in Luxury and Ease. . . .
Vast Numbers throng’d the fruitful Hive;
Yet those vast Numbers made ’em thrive;
Millions endeavouring to supply
Each other’s Lust and Vanity; . . .
All Trades and Places knew some Cheat,
No Calling was without Deceit. . . .
Thus every Part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradise; . . .
Their Crimes conspir’d to make them Great: . . .
The worst of all the Multitude
Did something for the Common Good.
Mandeville saw bees as models of diligent self-interest that nonetheless worked in concert, as a hive-sized embodiment of “private vices, publick benefits”: the deeply troubling notion that we are all deluded egoists at heart, whose very selfishness involuntarily produces every type of social good. Sylvia Plath was less cheerful about those “swarmy” bugs —“Black on black, angrily clambering” like a “Roman mob.” One hears an echo of such troubling overtones in Paradise Lost, where John Milton describes Satan’s first council in Hell as a “throng numberless” that “swarmed, both on the ground and in the air, / Brushed with the hiss of rustling wings. As bees, / In spring-time.”
That sense of troubling multitude has endured for centuries, a kind of buzzy sounding board for our own groupthink. In her posthumously published “The Bees,” Audre Lorde inverts the threat of the swarm, showing how the early gendering of violence is something taught: “Outside a school / what the children learn / possesses them.” Lorde describes a group of boys who, unprompted, “stone a flock of bees / trying to swarm . . . / the little boy feet becoming expert / in destruction / trample the remaining and bewildered bees / into the earth.” Looking on in fascination are four little girls: “Curious and apart . . . / learning a secret lesson / and trying to understand their own destruction.”
Where some have found an omen, others have seen a beacon. Throughout his life, James Fenimore Cooper nursed a mild obsession with bees, which he viewed as a harbinger of Western civilization. Where bees went, settlers could, would, and often did follow. His third Leatherstocking novel, The Prairie, from 1827, features Paul Hover, a roving bee hunter whose dialogue swarms with apian allusions. “Well, may I be stung to death by drones,” he exclaims, “if I understand the buzzings of a woman’s mind!” Hover and his companions are eventually captured by a band of Sioux, “a people who might, without exaggeration, be called the Ishmaelites of the American deserts”— a simile that tacitly couples haughty condescension with an acknowledgement of Indigenous displacement. Cooper couldn’t leave his winged fancy there, though. The Oak Openings; or, The Bee-Hunter, from 1848, follows the travails of Benjamin Boden, a professional honey hunter nicknamed Ben Buzz.
Bees feature throughout Shakespeare’s works, and, like so many before him, the Bard saw a naturalized order amid the swarmy confusion. In Henry V, for instance, the young king is coaxed by the archbishop of Canterbury to seize the French throne: “For so work the honey bees, / Creatures that by a rule in nature teach / The act of order to a peopled kingdom.”
Shakespeare’s more ignominious contribution to the apian canon shows up in The Tempest. The famed First Folio from 1623 uses the f‑shaped long‑s, leading many a scholar, one presumes, to bouts of schoolboy tittering in the British Library. As Ariel sings to Prospero while helping him to dress, “Where the Bee ∫ucks, there ∫uck I.”
Such an accident of typography is perhaps predictable, a pseudo-orthographic registering of a longer history of sexualization. Since antiquity, bees have often been thought of in erotic terms, always closely associated with women. They show up dozens of times in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. In poem 1224 she switches the sex of a worker bee from female to male, so that the feminized flower “withstands until the sweet Assault.” In a post-coital stupor, the bee “victorious tilts away / To vanquish other Blooms.” If on the hunt for a metaphor, simile, or psychological projection, one could do worse than peer into a busy hive.
One reason that bees have proven so fascinating for so many centuries is that we really didn’t understand them all that well until quite recently. Aristotle and Pliny the Elder were go‑to authorities as late as the early modern period, and one series of questions they returned to again and again, but never quite sorted, was the birds and the bees of bees: how to determine their sex, how they reproduced, and whether the queen bee, as we now call it, was actually a king. In his Generation of Animals, Aristotle noted that no human had ever observed bees copulating, and he flip-flopped on the sex of the Crown. Among Greek and Roman philosophers, the sex of bees more generally and the nature of their offspring were the source of rampant conjecture. Maybe drones were female and workers were male, some thought; maybe bees just collected their offspring from plants and flowers (hence all that feverish licking and humping of O’Keeffean blossoms).
The monarch’s sex was finally settled in the seventeenth century, when the Dutch anatomist Jan Swammerdan dissected a queen. But it remained a mystery how she went about reproducing. It would take another century until that question was put to bed by the Swiss entomologist François Huber, who, worker-bee-like, dedicated his life to the buzzy bodies. In 1792, with the help of his assistant, François Burnens, Huber finally published his 800-page Nouvelles observations sur les abeilles (New Observations on Bees), despite having gone fully blind.
Along the way, Huber discovered the queen bee’s “mating flight,” during which she copulates with about a dozen drones, all of which die after sex — une petite mort, vraiment! In the air, the queen fills her sac-like spermatheca with as much sperm as possible. That supply sometimes lasts her entire life, which might span several years, though queens have been known to take up to three such flights. “Once mated sufficiently,” Noah Wilson-Rich writes with Werner Herzog–like solemnity, in his otherwise cheerfully illustrated The Bee: A Natural History, “the queen becomes a slave to her hive, remaining in it for the rest of her life.” Huber got the credit for discovering the mating flight, but he was not the first to witness it. That honour goes to Anton Janša (or Janscha), a Slovenian beekeeper who observed one years earlier, though his publication at the time was largely ignored. (Small recompense: May 20, the exact date that Janša was born in 1734, was named World Bee Day in 2017.)
More recent discoveries are just surprising. Here’s a riddle: Why do drones, or male bees, have grandfathers but no fathers? The answer lies in their distinctive genetic system, known as haplodiploidy. All bees are the offspring of a female queen, but only worker bees (females) are the product of fertilized eggs. (The worker bees, in turn, secrete royal jelly, which is then used to nurture larvae into additional queens and which provides further proof that monarchies have always been elective.) Males, on the other hand, are the product of unfertilized eggs, so they have a maternal grandfather by virtue of the queen but no father.
Today bees are a truly global species. But it wasn’t always so, and, despite their integral role as pollinators in horticulture and farming, honeybees are not native to the Americas. In any case, they constitute only about eight of some 20,000 known bee species. Centuries ago, honeybees were found only in Europe, western Asia, and Africa, where they had evolved a hundred million years earlier from carnivorous wasps into vegetarians (but without the self-righteousness), alongside increasingly colourful plants and their sweet-scented reproductive organs. Honeybees made it to the Americas only in the 1600s, when they were introduced by the type of English and Swedish colonists who would have put a smile on Jim Cooper’s face. They spread quickly.
The fact that honeybees are a non-native species, yet one we fundamentally rely on for so many of our staples — fruits and nuts, berries and cherries, veggies and tubers, even cotton and flax — makes for some nervous hand-wringing about their exploitation for commercial purposes and about the rotten job we do of feeding and protecting them in general. In Revery, her brief account of running a small apiary in northern Alberta, Jenna Butler reports her own second-guessing about the annual cycles of bee importation and recurrent death. “Everything is wrong with this story,” she writes with brutal honesty. Presumably humankind could survive without bees, which pollinate 80 percent of our flowering crops. But our plates would end up being filled with mostly wind-pollinated foods like corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans, to the horror of those on a keto diet. And I’m guessing the rest of us would be pretty miserable without avocado toast. Ask not for whom the bee toils; it toils for thee.
The queasiest fact is that most of the problems faced by bees are caused by humans. Roughly 30 percent of managed colonies — those used for commercial honey production and crop pollination — fail in the U.S. and Canada, thanks largely to avoidable problems in apiculture. As Thomas D. Seeley points out in The Lives of Bees, some of the shortcomings are agricultural, such as the use of pesticides and pervasive monocropping, both of which have a terrible impact on bee nutrition (apples and tree nuts are basically the Doritos and Mountain Dew of a black and yellow world). But, as Seeley also makes clear, wild honeybee colonies are in comparatively good health, even if populations in general have witnessed a steady decline over the preceding decades. As Cooper puts it in The Prairie, “Here is a dealer in bees, who can teach you wisdom in a matter like this.”
For all their worries and complaints, beekeepers are responsible for a huge number of the other problems that face the stingers they manage, thanks to Mandevillean self-interest. Colony transportation across huge swaths of North America for seasonal pollination, the density of hives, even the plastic structures used to artificially enlarge them, increase honey production, and facilitate easier access — all of these things promote the poor health of the residents and the failure of colonies. One culprit is the popular Langstroth hive, a wood and plastic box fitted with hanging vertical frames and named after its mid-nineteenth-century inventor, the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth. Such artificial habitats encourage bees to create larger hexagonal cells than they would in the wild, where, safely lodged in the cozy hollow of a tree, they create “angles so accurate you’d think they used rulers,” as the young narrator of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Lives of Bees explains. Those larger cells in turn lead to larger larvae, which take longer to mature and are more likely to be killed by varroa mites, the honeybee’s most formidable predator, whose own life cycle then syncs up with the brood’s.
Left to their own inclinations, bees will often do much better, even in the frostier regions of the Americas. But, as Butler acknowledges in Revery, honeybees simply aren’t supposed to be in Canada (or the contiguous U.S.), and so each spring she helplessly cracks open another fresh packet of insects imported from Australia, New Zealand, or Hawaii, where varroa mites are unknown. Even the recent onslaught of so‑called murder hornets in Washington State and British Columbia is instructive. Those pesky wasps can destroy an entire honeybee colony in a matter of hours, using their serrated mandibles to decapitate the locals before dragging off their thoraxes to feed to their young. Little can North American bees do to protect themselves, but their Asian counterparts, which had centuries to evolve alongside the hornets, have developed ingenious defences, including coating their own hives in animal feces, as well as counter-swarming and encasing hornets in “hot bee balls” that literally roast them to death. No such luck on the other side of the Pacific, where honeybees haven’t found a way to fend off a predator they met only in 2019.
A shame, because honeybees are quick learners and clever little creatures. In 1946 the Austrian scientist Karl von Frisch discovered, for instance, that bees use various dances to communicate the location of food sources: the round dance for sources less than fifty metres away and the waggle for sources further afoot (or a‑wing). And these instructive dances can even be vetoed if necessary. A member of the colony, hooligan-like, will head-butt the dancer if a danger has been detected at the foraging site. Even the largely omnipresent threat of the varroa mite is not a given. African and Africanized honeybees have managed to develop resistance to the tiny arachnids, in part through shorter brood times.
For all their industry and inventiveness, though, bees can’t do it on their own. If we are truly going to help those of all stripes, then we also need to rethink how we use them. One place to start? Please, for heaven’s sake, stop mowing your lawns. Or have you considered a sheep?
My own relationship with bees has been vexed. As a child I was convinced that I was deathly allergic to them, an overreaction born of a single encounter during a Little League T‑ball game. In retrospect, the sting probably wasn’t even from a bee; the culprit was likely a wasp or a hornet — a sworn enemy and the kind of doppelgänger that is the bane of good-sibling/bad-sibling misidentifications the world over.
A fun fact, or weetje, as they’re known in Dutch: not all bees die after stinging. Those with non-serrated stingers can survive and even sting multiple times. Those that do die, however, do so in the most gruesome way possible, leaving behind a portion of their digestive tract with the stinger. Many species don’t sting at all, such as the unimaginatively named stingless bees, which possess useless residual pointed ends. According to the experts, though, most bees have no real interest in stinging humans, especially those who smell like alcohol or are festooned in leather (good news for attendees of the annual Folsom Street Fair).
After my run-in with the buzzer on the diamond of my youth, my arm swelled up — but barely, really. Still, from then on, I practised a wary caution around all bees, wasps, and hornets, convinced that the next sting would be the last thing I remembered before shuffling off this mortal coil.
I think my attitude toward bees finally shifted while I was living in Vancouver a few years ago. In a small community plot near Mount Pleasant, someone had cultivated a riotous flower garden that magically attracted dozens of different species. I would often bring a book on sunny afternoons to read on the bench beside the greenery, taking frequent breaks to admire the circling bees, which greedily bobbed from blossom to blossom, and to enjoy their pleasing white-noise hum.
I caught a glimpse — or heard an echo — of that old Vancouver life last summer, during a solo bike trip through Provence. Lavender season had long since passed, but some fields remained unharvested, left to bleach and dry in the late-summer sun while drenching the foothills in their sweet floral scent. I had just descended from a short col to a valley floor and could already hear, hundreds of metres away, the steady engine of wings, the “murmuring of innumerable bees,” as Alfred Tennyson writes in a mumbling onomatopoeia in The Princess. Closer up, I paused to take in the sight, sound, and smell. I got off my bike and walked the footpaths between the hip-high plants in that otherwise empty valley. On the way back, I snipped a small stock of lavender and strapped it to my handlebar bag in the hope that I, too, might attract a bee to my campsite and make my nights just a little less lonely.
Wolsak & Wynn, 2020
Thomas D. Seeley
Princeton University Press, 2019
Princeton University Press, 2014
Andrew Benjamin Bricker teaches literary studies at Ghent University. He wrote Libel and Lampoon: Satire in the Courts, 1670–1792.