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.




 After Equinox


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.



Dear Jacquie,

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.



Far Fields


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.