bees, honey, and love -- 2/13/19

Today's selection -- from The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us by Bee Wilson. Bees, honey, and love:

"How would human beings ever have made love to each other, without honey and bees to help them? It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that, in all cultures and at all times, honey and love have enjoyed a special relationship. Not only has honey been the literal food of lovers, it has provided them with the words for expressing their love -- the honeyed kisses, the honey­ sweet feeling of falling in love, the lover-like devotion of the bees to flowers and to their combs and queens -- and even the day-to-­day honey of 'Honey, I'm home.' And it is one of the peculiar­ities of bees and honey -- both of which are at once deadly and innocent -- that they have seemed just as appropriate in the ser­vice of sacred love as profane love. Psalm 119 speaks of 'Thy promise in my mouth, sweeter on my tongue than honey'. The love in question is pure and godly. Yet the words themselves are not very different from those used to express the utterly secular and lascivious love celebrated by Richard Barnfield in The Affectionate Shepherd (1594), with his desire that 'my lips were honey and thy mouth a Bee'. The fact that honey is to be found in celebrations both of sexual ecstasy and of chaste worship is not just because different poets put their subject matter to varying uses. It is also because, although we cannot always articulate it, there is something genuinely weird and contradictory for humans about the love in the hive, something irreducibly puzzling, mys­terious and strange.

"In a beehive, love seems at once to be everywhere and nowhere. Honey is one of the most tempting substances known to man; yet the bees themselves, while surrounded by all this sweetness, have always appeared free from the burdens of lust and greed. 'Why', asks Maeterlinck, do the bees renounce 'the delights of honey and love, and the exquisite leisure enjoyed, for example, by their winged brother, the butterfty?' For men, bees are at once the exemplification both of sex and of the denial of it. And, in the denial of sex, bees have promised to teach men about a higher love than the kind which usually ensnares them in the human world. But this promise is never realized. Try as we might, we are not like bees; and carnal passion, like honey, is still endlessly seductive to us.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Cupid complaining to Venus, National Gallery, London

"Kama, the Hindu god of love, who gives his name to the Kama Sutra, is often shown riding on a kind of bee fused with a lion. This is how he appears on the side of honey jars in India. Kama's bee symbolizes the sweetness of love as well as its sting. He also uses strings of bees as missiles from the 'bow of love'. As the fifth-­century Indian poet Kálidása writes:

A stalwart soldier comes, the spring,
Who bears the bow of Love;
And on that bow, the lustrous string
Is made of bees ...

"This brings to mind that other god of love, Cupid or Eros, who fires arrows at his victims, sometimes dipped in honey. Cupid also steals honeycomb. This was an irresistible subject for the old mas­ters, some of whom painted it over and over again. Lucas Cranach the Elder produced nine versions in a single year, from 1530 to 1531 Cranach's paintings vary in size, but the scene is always more or less the same. The viewer's eye is dominated by a slender and naked Venus, standing, knowingly, with her left leg thrust confidently towards us. She is holding the merest wisp of white material, which only accentuates her nudity. ln the background are trees and a city. Next to her, but not commanding any of her attention, is her son, Cupid. He, a chubby child of two or so, is carrying a luscious-looking crag of dark golden honeycomb, but whining because some bees are stinging him. Most mothers, if their naked toddler were being viciously attacked by insects, might break away from displaying their porcelain body for a minute; they might at least look a little troubled; they might even comfort their child or go in search of some bandages. Not Venus. In this story, it is all Cupid's fault. He ought not to have stolen the honey in the first place. Besides which, the pain he feels in being stung by the bees is as nothing compared to the pain he inflicts with his own amorous arrows."



Bee Wilson


The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us


Thomas Dunne Books by St. Martin's Griffin


Copyright 2004 by Bee Wilson


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