top of page

The World’s Mantra

all images Arif Turan

"It is fabled that we slowly lose the gift of speech with animals, that birds no longer visit our windowsills to converse. As our eyes grow accustomed to sight they armour themselves against wonder."    —Leonard Cohen

I want to tell you what I know about honeybees and their inclinations and purpose as much as I have gleaned from keeping their company, for many years, and intensely so, this summer just gone.  And should I succeed in giving you a sense of who they are, and also of what they are not, please do seek them out in the woods or wherever you find them,  and tell it to them because it will affirm them greatly to be told that you know who they are.


The bees and us, we both have a sting, but theirs dispenses healing and even helps to loosen us a little from the fetters of earthbound thinking, whereas that of humankind spells death and disaster in the heart of the biosphere, the bees and all our pollinators. Fear not the bees’ venom and don’t ever approach them in heavy armour, they dispense their precious venom judiciously and only for healing. We can be at peace with one another, the bees and us, so bear with me if I refrain from discussing beekeeping, since for that I have neither qualification nor certainty. I was a beekeeper once, and the bees have forgiven it.  Should a time come when they call you I fancy that you will heed them and invite them into your life. They might arrive as a swarm since they are very capable of divining your soul’s inclinations, and then they might change your life and you will never look back and dwell in the joy of it. I’d say it is probable, and wish it greatly for you.


Bee people, a tribe somewhat distinct from beekeepers,  have something in common, perhaps more than one thing, but this for certain: they all grapple with the bees’ language. They speak foreign, the bees. Foreign to all our mother tongues, except Lithuanian, maybe, where you still meet folks who tell you that the bees need to live high up in trees, the higher the better, so as to be close to their gods. It’s fair to say that to most of us the bees speak as if in code. So to converse with them well we need to employ faculties beyond our day awake consciousness. They will develop over time, and I’ve met people to whom they come naturally, but some effort is usually involved. Time spent on patient observation is very helpful, as is meditation. It takes good will and times of silence and quiet surrender to understand anything about the bees, anything at all, so time you must take. As for the bees’ language, that foreign language, Carol Ann Duffy captures it utterly:  


...the hive is love, what we serve, preserve, avowed in Latin murmurs, as we come and go, skydive, freighted with light ….  The world’s mantra us ….


That world’s mantra resounded  for many thousands of years, inspiring  bee love and worship, and the bees were sacred to people. One might say they were a totem, not just in the symbolic sense, but in the actual sense of a creature through which access is gained to a spiritual connection with all of nature and the cosmos and through which the human tribe can determine appropriate actions vis a vis those worlds. 


This was a long time ago, and gradually, over time,  human beings began to banish the spirits from nature and take dominion over the animals and every living creature and finally, even the sacred bees fell victim to the laws of the production line. Now, as we all know, they’re dying in their millions for our follies. In times of stillness we can still hear it, the world’s mantra, in places where the bees are, and pray and hope that the bees will not give up on us, that they will prove tougher, more resilient than the Great Barrier Reef, whose demise leaves us stunned with sorrow. The bees are dying and with them all the other insects, and the birds, too. Our time is one of a great diminishing of life, unprecedented in the history of mankind - the tapestry of the living word, once so rich and varied and wildly populated, is threadbare and worn. Nature’s orchestras are losing their players, one by one, and so fast that we hardly have time to mourn each loss.  The honeybees, we cannot afford to ever lose, because we need them badly, for beauty and for solace in times of grief and lament. They are our teachers. They understand that well, and solace they can give in abundance, but there’s nothing they can do for us if we do not love them enough.


Love for the bees, what does it mean? So much is written and said about bees, but as is the way with celebrity fame, it achieves little,  besides a media barrage on the creature concerned, and the forming of trivial concepts in people’s heads.  Click-activism weakens the will and imparts a false sense of involvement. I’d like to suggest that we desist from saying or thinking, ever again, that the bees are responsible for providing much of  the food we eat. Somewhat absurdly, we’ve been seduced by insidious media coverage of the so-called plight of the bees to worry more about the food we eat than about the food they eat. --- So here we are, consuming their honey and feeling a little concerned about their fate, since they are “responsible for three out of four mouthfuls” of the food we eat all the while the food the bees eat is poisoned by the way we grow ours. And all the while their food, their honey is taken from them for us to eat!  This, too, will pass, as we painfully learn the bees’ lesson about the truth and beauty of interdependence, and begin looking to them for the healing of our souls and for learning what love is. For now, what I wish for the honeybee is a beekeeping ceasefire, a time of amnesty to allow at least some of them to return to the trees where they belong, and live on honey and in peace. This would allow us to imagine them truly as creatures in need of protection, of nesting sites, of natural living and put an end to our unfortunate association of honeybees as boxes of insects dependent on man’s essentially self-serving ministrations.


Concerning the keeping of honeybees in a semi-domestic setting, there is much to recommend it. The life of a honeybee family is a pageant of miracles. Under their tutelage we can learn many things and the more we learn the less we know, and that is an excellent schooling. School ourselves we must to get close to bees, to relate to them for mutual benefit, and those of you who still talk to elves and tree spirits and other such folk may well have an advantage as regards humility and sense-free perception, both desirable attributes for relating to bees, or any living creature, for that matter. For a training in beholding the ineffable in nature, honeybees offer rich opportunity - each facet of their hive life is a challenge to embrace the supersensible in nature. Contemplate, for example, the production of snow white wax in the dark of the hive! The young bees who work this wonder need to be supplied with copious amounts of nectar to perform the task of building the body for the whole, since that is what comb is, the body of the Bee. As soon as the comb builders reach the age of forager bees, they transform the glands needed for wax production into other specialist equipment suited to the tasks ahead, and so forth.  Each single bee undergoes stages of metamorphosis in precise accordance with the needs of the wholeness, the hive. The hive is a continuum of metamorphosis and an ever-transforming wholeness that is potentially infinite. 


Honeybees are the only creatures apart from us human beings who communicate by dancing. They dance in spring, summer and autumn, in the dark of the hive, on selected parts of the comb,  except on special festive occasions. When a bee discovers a wealth of blossoms that promise a good return she will return to her hive and dance so joyously that others will avidly join the dance and the fragrance of the flower will spread throughout the hive and align every worker bee to the great purpose of venturing forth to that benign spot where the flowers are in the process of yielding their nectar. Nectar secretion is time sensitive, it depends on the warmth of the sun and the direction of the wind and the earth’s moisture. Each type of blossom has its own preference as to what conditions are right regarding these dynamic interactions. Bees know this and they never waste time. So directions will be given in the dark of the hive -  the bees use the sun as their compass, and even when it’s not shining, they read the patterns behind the clouds and share all the vital information. They also allow for the time it takes for their nest mates to reach that promising spot, and the altered position of the sun. Whatever they do, each minute action in the hive, the bees’ interests are perfectly aligned. Without fail. When a particularly interesting site opens up, as it were, such as a linden tree or a field of lavender, their dances get very wild and even young bees might be pressed into action. So they dance and dance to the tunes that reflect the world each day. 


Their queen is their mother, and fathers they have many, but not in the hive, the male quality is embedded in the queen bee when she soars from the hive towards the sun for her wedding flight,  pursued by hundreds of drones of which the fittest get to meet her and donate their lives to her and the hive’s perpetuity. The males perish dramatically in the act of mating, and the virgin bee returns a queen with the amazing potential to bring forth baby bees for as long as five years all being well. Every spring, when the bees have responded to the early pollen of crocus, hazel and willow and raised many young,  a great wonder comes to pass. It usually happens between Easter and St. John’s that  the spirit of the hive -  a wisdom-filled emissary of a planetary intelligence called Venus - senses the call to perpetuate the species. Then new males will be raised in the hive to stock the surrounding country with thousands of drones, destined to engage in pursuits of virgin queens when the time comes for the nuptial flight of the bee princesses. And the very fittest of them will be allowed to mate with her, thus ending their physical lives but living on within the queen bee and her progeny for years to come. Such are the faerie tales we may dwell on as we sit in peace with the bees and marvel.

The most sacred festival of the year in the life of  bees is their birth giving time in mid summer. This is the time when we might strike lucky and be favoured with a glimpse into their otherwise hidden world and watch them dance in the open air,  and be filled with such wonder that we will never forget. Or write poems …. That kinship with the sky we never know until a swarm of bees runs tidal... John Burnside has surely gazed in wonder at a sky alive with swarming bees, chanting solemnly. A swarm portends the birth of a new bee family. One becomes two. It is at the same time a great leavetaking, as the bees, not all, perhaps half of them pour from the hive entrance like a river and rise up skywards to dance. A wild joyous dance of thousands of bees, each bee perfectly aligning its gyrations to the others. It is a marvellous sight, a gift from the cosmos, an all-body, all-soul happening. Some say the sky turns black. This may well be a perception of the forgetting which the bees go through, so essential to the rebirthing of the Beeing. In time, we may find that our spirit soars with the bees and joins in with the great song of creation. This is bliss then.  For a time there is no time, it stands still, perfectly still. All the while the bees are dancing in a great shape-shifting cloud around their queen, they are shedding their memory, they are casting off all vestiges of their old life. Does not our spirit, too, when we leave our earthly body, undergo a kind of swarming where it has to shed all that is going to fetter it to its last earthly life? 


The bees have left behind everything, all that ties them to their former existence, even their body, that wondrous structure of waxen combs which served them as cradle and nursery, food store and dance floor. They are homeless now, and will soon embark on building a new body so that another spirit can incarnate and begin life anew. Left behind, is a hive full of bees and honey, and a virgin queen still sleeping in her cradle. When their aerial dancing is done, they congregate for a while in a tight cluster around their queen to await instruction from their wise scouts, older members of the tribe who will have searched the area far and wide for a suitable cavity to establish a new nest. All being well these house hunting bees will guide them to a mighty tree, old enough to have hollows high up within the trunk. Then the thousands will take possession with zeal, assured now of their future. All being truly well, the bees would forever go forth and procreate in the way they have perfected through the many millennia of their existence on the earth.


Go and tell it to the bees is a tradition from times when people knew that the honeybee is a highly evolved being that embodies qualities of wisdom and love that most of us humans cannot ever hope to emulate. Those who came before us, they knew because they had a more dreamlike consciousness where the gods could reach them and endow them with instinctual knowledge of the ways of nature and its myriads of invisible helpers. So they were in a habit of telling the bees their joys and sorrows and asking the bees for guidance. The hives were regarded as members of the family. To most of us modern people it is inconceivable to turn to bees for advice. We expect the truth from corporate funded scientists because we no longer trust our intuition.  Bees have become factory workers,  slaves of the insect world, and beekeeping, interestingly enough, is the first part of our worldwide system of industrial agriculture to fall apart. Many reasons are cited for this, but as far as the bees are concerned, they boil down to the simple truth that collectively we have lost the ability to look after living things.  


Honey is a marvellous medicine for body and soul and the bees would gladly share it. However, they have little to spare nowadays because we have taken all the flowers and trees and much of what is left gets poisoned. All the while the blossoms are poisoned and the trees felled the bees carry on their timeless endeavours, persevering as best they can with their mighty feats of pollination.  Increasingly, what they bring back from nature is making them sick. Our warfare against nature is poisoning the bees’ food and they have no defence against it. The individual bee does not judge the flower or assess its worth.  What is collected in nature is carried into the hive. But now we have scientific evidence that the spirit of the hive gets the big picture. A process sets in at which we cannot but marvel: as the beeing senses that the weal of the community is threatened by toxic overload, its members cover over the stores of pollen with a layer of propolis to protect the nursery, to keep the family safe. Imagine this! The bees are engaging in a hitherto unknown act in direct response to a very great threat, sealing off the food they have collected in thousands of flights! The pollen stores of bee colonies found engaging in this new behaviour contained up to forty different kinds of agricultural pesticides. 


Pollen is a miracle.  Pollen constitutes the protein food of the honeybee, and is essential nourishment for countless other insects, too. We see it coming into the hive in the form of compact balls of many colours carried on the bees’ third pair of legs, packed tightly into a special indentation we call the bees’ pollen baskets. The importance of fresh pollen arriving in late winter for the build-up of the young brood cannot be overestimated; nothing can take the place of pollen for the growing of new bees, and for preparing the highly nutritious bee milk for the queen. Did the discovery of bees sealing themselves off from their essential food supplies send shockwaves through the world? Or the scientific community? Was it on the front page of every national paper to help wake the world up to this catastrophe?  The newly identified behavioural trait of apis mellifera was given a name:  entombment and  described in the familiar language of detachment; the presence of entombing is the biggest single predictor of colony loss. It's a defence mechanism that has failed.’   ----  Go tell it to the bees that we grow our food crops with neurotoxins. That the wildflowers, too, get poisoned. That their mother, the queen will be the first to succumb, since her cosmic nature has no defence against evil. We need not tell the bees, they know it already. 


There are places in the world where the bees are still thriving, where they forage on vast meadows and orchards and  much of the land is untouched and the wind carries the music of a full orchestra of insects and birds. We must fear for them, and create places, too, in the middle of man made deserts where the honeybees are afforded sanctuary. Where they are free to swarm to propagate the species. Where bees and people live together in a prayerful mood and celebrate the seasons and the stories of creation. Whoever plants trees now, or tends a garden in partnership with nature, and mindful of the needs of the insects, is deserving of our deepest gratitude. Such folks are bee people. The bees need them a great deal more than beekeepers who expect the bees to pay for themselves.  Every tree raised, every piece of earth cultivated with flowering plants is a vital step towards stemming the tide of proliferating wastelands devoid of bees and birdsong and trees.  --  As bee people we welcome the bees’ swarming as the high point of the year, indeed we celebrate it with them. ‘Enchanted to meet you’ we say. We aim to live close to the bees and tend to their offspring like farmers to newborn lambs.. Each beeing, each hive is a little universe, completely evolved, perfect like a star. Which brings to mind another thing that bee people have in common, we look up to the bees because we invariably find them superior to ourselves. Frequently we also arrange our hives high up because the bees are naturally high living creatures, tree dwellers. All this may be unknown to you when you first join the bee people, because the beekeepers who write books about beekeeping are mostly silent about such things. So, until one is written by one of the bee people, if I’m asked to recommend which book to read about keeping bees I recommend none.  Do read about the bees, read Tolstoy, Virgil, John Burnside or Mark Winston and Tom Seeley and others besotted with bees, but steer well clear of beekeeping books, especially modern ones, because beekeeping will do the bees no good and you neither. We can be guardians to the bees as well as their students, we can study plant lore, sow seeds for meadows of sunflowers, lavender and thyme, plant orchards and forests, and make gardens of paradise in which to revere the bees and their kind.


It’s only in more recent times, ever since an American pastor named Lorenzo Langstroth invented the framed hive around 1850 that we have come to associate honeybees with boxes placed on the ground, attended by people in armour and producing honey for the markets of the world. It was a groundbreaking invention, and such was the ground that was broken that Lorenzo fell into a state of melancholy and despair from which he never recovered.  Nor did the bees, since it marked the beginning of their downfall. In the wake of this invention bee colonies were increasingly put in boxes like filing cabinets, to be taken apart at will, their wholeness shattered, sliced and used as spare parts to swap between hives. The invention paved the way for the cold hearted bee engineer who became the model for beekeeping in the whole of the Western world. Edward O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard biologist has referred to bees and other pollinators as the ‘heart of the biosphere’. This heart is ailing. The glorious bees have been degraded to slaves of the insect world. Managed bees, woe betide. It is bitter to gaze at the travailing earth through the multi-faceted eyes of the bees:


Where the bee sucks/neonicotinoid insecticides in a cowslip bell lie/ in fields purple with lavender/yellow with rape/and on the sunflower’s upturned face/on land monotonous with cereals and grain...


 from where the bee goes to suck she flies no more because her nerves have succumbed to neurotoxins’ diabolical purpose.  So thank God for the saints and poets and mad people who converse with fairies and leprechauns, thank the Poet Laureate for her bee poems, they are beautiful and true. 


Where the bees live, such places are holy places, whole and sound. Look out for them and tell the bees that we love them. Ask them what came first, the banishing of the spirits from the living world or the crushing of our own, they surely will have an answer.  And if you offer them a hive, in summer time, be sure that it is a beautiful hive, in a beautiful place. Let the hive proclaim the beneficence of the being that inhabits it. Let them face the rising sun. Go there often. Go in peace. If that’s not possible because your soul is in turmoil, tell it to them, but don’t breathe on them as you will make them afraid.  Bees will make all things better. Each day we can be born again among the bees;  without the bees we are nothing.  

Poetry: HiveThe Bees, Carol Ann Duffy, Picador

bottom of page