Paula Milligan lives in Seattle and is a frequent contributor to Bellowing Ark, where several of these poems appeared.
Curious bees pause, touch the hair
of my unshorn legs, lick the salt
I can give them, walk my skin
until I shiver. They leave their sisters
to guard the hive and cool bodies
cover me until I become the color
of sepia grandmothers. They swirl
the dark smell of honey,
whisper of Egyptian tunnels,
Athenian caves, touch me until
I am the color of respiration, and heaven
is seen through the wing of a bee.
I would close my eyes and see
the beginning—light I can only call
white—it is just the light—
or it is blue of Mary’s robes.
Listen for the whisper, rhythm
of respiration, breath of God.
I would open my eyes, see
honeybees at the gate to their
upright house, where they wait
for the rain to stop. Tufts of fur
left by years of cats’ passing
through the doorway, light
of the sun on lupine leaves
and grass in that moment
when clouds part. I hear
the song of the robin in her
tree, bumbling of bees’ search
for nectar in sage blossoms.
I would touch the rain on my face
and know it is holy. I would
open the door and step through.
Sophia slips between stalks of drowsing cornsilk,
her veil the undulations of bees’ wings
splashing sunlight. She whispers of time, shows
the years swelling—waves grown immense
before they crest and spill on sand, fold
into sighs. She laughs at those who fear the blade
that cuts the thread. Short or long, no matter,
she says. Best to stuff green spikes of rosemary,
crumble in wax that once held larval bees
and honey, wrap your yarn around other
peculiar strands you encounter. This amuses
the spinner; she can only use the fibers you bring.
The corn sheds its silk, wraps tough skin
around its young. She offers the threads.
Sometimes the queen pipes, they say,
a strange Pan in a box, or a tree . Not for distress,
only making sound, she who is swollen
with legions of eggs, will live on wax cells
until she runs dry, and a new queen supplants.
Maybe she calls that primordial bee,
wisdom she must learn herself. Or sings;
her daughters have made apartments
for the tiny eggs, plenty of room to grow.
She sings the song that drew the warrior
to the fire. The song’s language
is unimportant. It’s the meaning.
The sun rises later now—it has been a summer
full of ripe tomatoes, so sweet they are nearly
confections, perfect pole beans, a tumble
of sunflowers, fireweed. The bees know light’s
language, they shore their stocks for winter,
place extra guard to mind the stores of honey,
its scent so heavy that even in moonlight,
the air is full with its ripeness. They know
what they soon must do—as do the hornets,
hungrily patrolling below. They are tired,
the bees. One who came home yesterday stopped
to rest, her sisters pausing as they passed
and passed, and she, nearly home, waited.
The others were patient, and in the evening,
when they were certain, they cast her body
to the ground for scavengers. Soon it will be time
to turn the drones out. The hornets wait for it.
Drones who never mated and so did not die
this summer. They will only deplete
the winter hive, and must be cast away.
Not just now; there is yet hope for a mating flight,
nectar to be gleaned from purple oregano
blooms, and the sisters enjoy the jocularity
of the big, blunt boys. They will feed them
for now, share the honey. Even in a brutal world,
there is some measure of mercy.
Because You Asked About Bees
I don’t really talk about the bees with strangers.
I think of them the way I think of faith—you know,
that kind of faith so deep and personal it fills
you with certitude, and you just don’t want to tell
any but your closest friends. Like when God
talks to you, but if you mention it, the power
goes slack, and people say you’re delusional
and need counseling. But I know that’s not your way,
and you wanted to know, so I’ll try to tell you
about them: the translucence as they begin to stir
on summer mornings, thousands of tiny flecks
of ancient amber come to life, about the smell
of honey and wax as I sit next to the boxes
I built to hold their comb, to house them. About
propolis, the resin they excrete—brown and thick,
hard, and strong enough to fortify the walls
against slashing wind and rain. They say
bees can seal a dead mouse at the bottom
of the hive tight enough with propolis, the smell
of decay won’t ever escape. How can I tell you
the smell of propolis? Wild and fruity, musky—
something like humus, but nothing like humus.
I have a colony on the back porch, and I sit
on the step some warm Sunday mornings and breathe them,
wonder on the odor which is like nothing else, hear
the zeees as they depart, watch them flash straight up
above the rooflines, then cut south, or west, or spiral
away to a day of forage. And the early risers
come home, hip pockets stuffed with bright pollen
they will mix with nectar and honey to make the bee bread
that nourishes the brood becoming larval in hundreds
of wax cells. Did I tell you about the time in July
when two bees escorted a yellowjacket
out by the shoulders? Each bee had him by a wing,
and they resembled bar bouncers hustling out
a drunk. The raider shook like a dog just bathed,
then flew straight away. The queen’s daughters can be brutal.
I’ve seen the legs strewn on boards after fights, when bees
from other colonies steal in and try to take
the honey for their own. I’ve watched crippled drones
flail in the grass. Born without a thorax, they are pulled
from birthing cells and dragged out, the imperfect male
left in the grass for yellowjackets to gnaw bits of him
until he is dead, and I have stepped on them all,
three yellow jackets and deformed bee, because
the yellowjackets return to raid in the fall,
and the ejected bee will die anyway. They’re all
children of the queen, the once promiscuous
queen, who mated with as many drones as she could
for a day or two, and then, sated, held their seeds
for eggs she would lay, hundreds a day,
for the rest of her life. The colony becomes an entity,
a consciousness, each bee a part of the whole,
each a cell in the body that lives to protect the queen,
the mother’s discrete pheromone binding them
like strands of a helix. From the moment of birth,
a worker bee fulfills the duty prescribed
by the moment elapsed: clean the cells, learn
to fly, hunt and gather and feed the young,
make cells to fill with nectar that the many will heat
to ripeness, then seal to store the golden food
for the society, each bee a cell in the body.
I am reminded of shorebirds, the thirty thousand
dunlings we saw sweep across the Sound as a single
body, rise as one to the sky as if in praise,
each bird connected to the same spirit, finial beak
to final tail, each wing knowing the next turn, each body
taking its place to trace the form they would assume,
each knowing the dance. We watched for an hour,
or not—time and joy live on different planes—
as they formed and reformed the shapes: veil or flag,
or pyramid. I knew it for dance like I know
about bees, or turtles playing chase in the water.
The way I feel the mitochondria my mother
has passed to me from her mother, breath of great
grandmothers before Lascaux. This is what I like
about bees, these bits of the universal mind,
clustered around the Mother as the ancients
surrounded the Venus of Willendorf.
I have put them to bed for the year, left them
a rack of honey to see them through. Still,
on the warm October days, they search for flowers,
come home with fat lumps of pollen
to nourish the brood their mother will begin at equinox.
I should have left her there, cradled
in the pink Sweet William petal,
waiting, I now see, for Morpheus.
A honeybee, of course, knows no
metaphor, only duties directed
by instinct. The struggle free
of the wax cell that contained her
from egg to pupa to white larva
to worker, born to clean her own
cell, then help to feed and nurture
other nascent worker bees, spend
the remaining three weeks of her life
foraging, dawn to dusk, for pollen
and nectar. In her life she will gather
drops of nectar, joined with drops
the others will collect, heat with their
clustered bodies, and cap with wax
they create. As field bee, she will work,
fly sometimes miles from the hive
until her wings have shredded.
When a friend of Grandmother’s
died, my mother expressed surprise—
she was so young, Mom said. Maybe
she was just tired, Grandmother
said. Not long after that, when
her own heart stopped its work, she tore
the wires from her chest and arms,
wires that might have made her life
longer, or made it seem longer.
Sometimes, lessons like that return
to the consciousness too late to help.
I picked the bee up, let her rest in the cup
of my hand. She twitched a little, so I
gathered the warmest air from the depths
of my lungs and let it surround her
without blowing directly. She took
a step, then another. I cradled her
as I took her to the back yard, placed
her at the entrance to the hive, but
she did not seem joyous to return
to her home. She walked until she fell
to the step below, then stopped moving
I had forgotten that when bees know
they are ready to die, they travel
far from the colony, like elephants
heading to the dying field.
I wish I had left her there, in the small
pink petal, cushioned as she waited for rest.