“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, One clover, and a bee, And revery. The revery alone will do, If bees are few” – Emily Dickinson
Nobel prize-winning Flemish poet and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck once said, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.” The good news, for those of you who have been living under a rock, is that the bees are not dead yet. The bad news is that since 2006 they have been dying off in swarms and droves. Nearly a third of commercial colonies (non-unionized, oppressed bee slaves who make honey for us greedy human overlords; wild bees are in even worse shape) have succumbed to what scientists refer to as “colony collapse disorder” (alas not applicable to the lost Roanoke Colony), a catch-all phrase that describes what happens when mutated viruses (the tobacco ringspot virus is the leading contender), parasites (a nasty little fly that deposits eggs in a bee’s abdomen, causing it to behave like a zombie), or pesticides (thank you very much Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midlands) weaken a bee colony past the point of no return. Not to be alarmist, but oh my god, run in fear for your life mortal. Worldwide mass bee die-offs and zombie bees! About a third of United States food production requires bees for pollination. Unless you think you could happily survive purely on corn, meat, and wheat for the rest of your life, things are not looking so good. Then again, most of those tasty walking slabs of meat we like to barbecue are herbivorous (cows have a particular hankering for bee-pollinated clover and alfalfa), which means they are unlikely to fare too well in a bee-less world. Hope you like corn. Those insufferable entomologists who have made the creepy career choice of studying our insectoid planetmates, and strangely, have scrupulously ignored the potential for human-fly hybrids a la Jeff Goldblum, have not yet settled on a scientific explanation. I mean, they’ve run the numbers, since scientists usually own fancy calculators and are reputed to be good at counting things (especially when those things mean our ultimate doom – we’ve all heard of evil scientists. Has anyone ever been described as an evil English teacher? Okay, maybe one or two), confirming that our humble bees are headed for the great hive in the sky at an alarming rate, but have not pinpointed why. In the absence of a good handle on the situation, it behooves those of us with a little more esoteric edge to look for folkloric precedents for the coming beepocalypse.
Paraphrasing Coolio, there ain’t no apocalypse like a Judeo-Christian apocalypse, because a Judeo-Christian apocalypse don’t stop, so if you see a Judeo-Christian eschatologist concerned about bees, you better give him his props. Of course, they’ve been predicting the advent of the apocalypse pretty much every time an unsavory character rises to power, establishing a track record of misinterpreting the signs, but interestingly bees traditionally seem to be implicated. To those fancy, educated European aristocrats of the 18th and 19th Centuries, Napoleon Bonaparte looked like an awesome candidate for the antichrist being (1) French, (2) conquering most of Europe, and (3) being French, and one of his first acts as emperor was to rewrite French heraldry, replacing the Old Regime’s fleurs-de-lys with stylized bees. This was grist for the apocalyptic mill, so we find no shortage of literature arguing that “The Little General” was ushering in the end times.
Upon this alleged holder of destinies, on account of the antecedents of his remarkable family, and his own adventurous career, extraordinary success and imperial dignity and for many other reasons, the prophetical lens was carefully fixed. His name (of Greek origin) was analyzed and it was found that the letters in it were resolvable into the exact Number of the Beast of the Revelation, 666. It was also perceived that his heraldic device was the Bee, the cognizance of the old kings of Assyria. His empire perhaps, is, or will be a prophetical Assyria, although not watered by the Euphrates. That such was the cognizance of the old kings of Assyria appears from ancient hieroglyphics and this circumstance is alluded to in Isaiah vii 18. ‘It shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost parts of the rivers of Egypt and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria’. This potentate whose number is that of the Beast and whose device is the Assyrian bee, undertook the siege of a town very strongly fortified, a siege which on account of the men and material engaged in it and the length and severity of the struggle, is said to have been unparalleled in modern history. Whilst this protracted and difficult siege was being carried on the writer turned to the eleventh Chapter of the Book of Daniel which contains the history written beforehand of the grandiloquent prince, obviously ‘a man of firm will and iron hand’ who is commonly called the Willful King (Flower, 1856, p7).
Now, Napoleon wasn’t arbitrarily selecting bees as an emblem because he liked honey, rather because the bee was an emblem associated with Childeric I (440-482 A.D.), founder of the Merovingian Dynasty, and by extension, the father of sovereign France. About 300 little golden bees were buried along with Childeric. Hey, if you’re going to claim the eternal awesomeness of France, you may as well go back to the beginning, right? The Assyrian angle is, of course, deliciously biblical. Assyria, centered in Mesopotamia, was the big Near East Empire on the block from roughly 2500-605 B.C., and then as now, success bred contempt. Eventually, the Babylonians, Chaldeans, Persians, Scythians, and Cimmerians got together and stomped all over them out of spite. Everybody but the Egyptians, their staunch allies, thought the Assyrians were just begging for a smackdown. The Assyrians were comparatively sophisticated technologically, and this was mostly due to the fact that they were coming up with innovative ways to kill people, first in the area to use iron swords, lances, metal armor, and battering rams, maintaining the largest standing army in the Mediterranean for much of their history. The fact that they excelled at taking other people’s stuff and slaughtering them made them a tad unpopular. Many biblical scholars have interpreted the phrase in Isaiah that refers to “the bee that is the land of Assyria” to be a reference to the monstrously effective, numerically impressive, and incredibly disciplined Assyrian army, who could pretty much run roughshod over any significant opponent at the time, let alone a bunch of sheepherders scribbling down the mythological history of their ancestors in the Galilee. Basically, if the Assyrians showed up they brought Armageddon with them, and you were done for.
Reverence for the supernatural prowess of bees certainly predates their association with the Assyrians (and subsequent incorporation as a motif in biblical literature). Most Ancient Near East and Aegean cultures thought of the bee as a sacred insect that traversed the gap between our world and the underworld, frequently appearing as a decoration in tombs. Mycenaean Greek (1600-1100 B.C.) tombs called “tholos tombs” were actually shaped like beehives, and the correspondence is likely more than a matter of architectural necessity, since the chthonic Minoan-Mycenean goddess Potnia was referred to as The “Pure Mother Bee”, often depicted as half-woman, half-bee. Priestesses of Potnia called themselves Melissa (“bee”). Similarly, the Egyptians held the bee in high esteem, associating it with kingship and referring to the Pharoh of Upper and Lower Egypt with hieroglyphs signifying “He of the Sedge and Bee”. Its stands to reason that if bees are traditionally psychopomps (guides for departed souls) from the earliest recorded human history, that should a beepocalypse occur, not only are we going to suffer from serious malnutrition, but the resultant increased deaths from nutritional deficiencies and thus increased need for the conveyance of souls to the afterlife, amounts to a logistical nightmare. We’re going to end up with long lines of souls with nowhere to go. So if you’re shrugging off the possible extinction of the bee because you never liked vegetables anyway, consider whether you want to be a ghost trapped on the earthly plane. Bees looking pretty important now, aren’t they you carnivorous bastard? Did I say that out loud? Given the long history of bee involvement in soul transport, the Scottish tradition (with analogous beliefs throughout Appalachia) of “Telling the Bees” seems extremely practical. Essentially, when somebody dies, you are supposed to make a special trip to the beehives and let the bees know.
There falls to be mentioned here a quaint superstition associated with “bee folklore,” as described by the late Patrick Dudgeon, Esq. of Cargen, Kirkcudbrightshire, who specially studied this matter. The custom was, when a death took place, to at once go to the bee-hives, or skeps, and whisper the tidings of the sad event to the bees. This was followed by “putting the bees in mourning” that is, attaching black ribbons to each of the skeps. Mr. Dudgeon, in a paper on the subject, observes that “the custom was very general some time ago, and several of my correspondents mention instances of old people having seen it observed. It is not altogether extinct yet” (Wood, 1991, p218).
We slip quietly towards the beepocalypse that neither the media nor public seem terribly interested in, where the produce shelves empty, honey is worth more than gold, and wayward souls wander the earth incorporeally cursing the day the bees started dying and doomed them to an unpleasant afterlife here on earth. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program remarked, “Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to 7 billion people”. Our existence, both physically and spiritually seems joined to the fate of the bees. And maybe technology has finally rendered us soulless, so the bee doesn’t see the point anymore and is dying from depression. Then again, maybe we are underestimating the preternatural power of the bee, for as Mark Kay Ash pointed out, “Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway.”
Flower, Edward (of Jersey). The Coalition of the Beast of the Apocalypse and His Ten Regal Confederates, and Same Prophetical Periods and Events Connected Therewith Examined, London: Whittaker and Company, 1856.
Wood, John Maxwell. Witchcraft And Superstitious Record In the South-western District of Scotland: Witchcraft, Fairy Lore, Wraiths, Death Customs, Ghost Lore. Dumpfries: J. Maxwell, 1911.