“The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;”
On The Grasshopper And Cricket
“They’re singing the queenless song,” the old beekeeper said. He’s a tall, thin, cranky man who doesn’t appreciate fools. Once, he was a mathematics teacher, but the bees took him. These days he’s an angry swarm of advice, educated in too many things, and made bitter by his knowledge. I go to him for instruction. After he’s finished lecturing me about my inadequacies and the failures of my generation, the secrets spill out — he’s generous despite himself, begrudging his desire to communicate the stories of a lifetime among insects; they’d spoken to him for too many years, and I think he’s ashamed of his own species.
My first hive was troubled. Even an amateur like myself knew it, so I stuffed the entrances with foam and bound it with the rubber inner-tube loops he’d given me, humped the whole hive onto my pickup, and drove out of my east field down to his cluttered yard. As soon as I dropped the tailgate and we stood listening in the humid late afternoon, he knew she was gone. A hive is always talking to itself. This one was humming grief. There was no queen, and no eggs that the workers could remake in time to save its life — the hive was dying, its last survivors wandering mournfully on the empty combs without purpose. I needed a new queen.
Anyone who raises bees, I very quickly learned, begins to speak a new language. Some of us begin to learn what language means.
I knew something was wrong by the way they were flying, their slowness. A sick hive can even smell different. The odour of the combs, their colour, their density constantly vary – sometimes red, sometimes blackish and thick, sometimes pale and fluid, or even crystallized like sweet amber. One hive, depending on the luck of seasons and predators, may contain as few as five thousand bees or as many as fifty thousand. Resting my hand on the lid, I felt a low, sad thrumming. A healthy hive is aggressive if disturbed. At the first commotion a couple of guard bees will leap into the air. If I bang the hive around an angry mob will kamikaze towards me.
When a bee stings, the exquisitely designed barb, resembling a futurist sculpture, its tip composed of two lancets jabbing alternately, sucks itself under the skin, until the apparatus snaps off at a breakaway point and remains in my pink flesh, venom sac attached, shouting an olfactory war-cry, as the bee stumbles away and dies, self-eviscerated. Gunga Din style, the released scent of the stings will constantly direct the attention of new warriors to the ambush site. After seven minutes the venom sac re-activates and pumps in another shot. I’ve watched this often: the sac seems alive, still obeying the commands of the hive. Even if the advance guards do not sting they will seize me with their mandibles and dab me with a volatile odour that will lure other guards, who will decide if I am worthy of the sacrifice, since every sting means suicide. Only the queen can sting repeatedly.
After I brought my first hive home, I used a handheld water sprayer to inhibit their activity, and because I didn’t have a proper mask and gloves, I moved slowly and carefully. Bee stings have never bothered me, so I assumed I could absorb a few. Bee venom is a miraculous substance, composed of seventy-six chemicals which interrelate in a way that amplifies their effects. A tiny stinger slightly thicker than a pin can kill people with sensitive immune systems. “Deadly poisons,” according to Ovid, “are concealed under sweet honey.” Bee venom has been used for centuries to treat diseases like arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Some apitherapists have suggested that acupuncture originated from studying the effects of bee stings on various parts of the body. I know a local man inflicted with MS whose wife uses tweezers to place live bees on his spine’s key acupuncture points every two days. He showed me his back once — symmetrically inflamed by the healing stings. Paralysed down one side when the disease first struck, he now jogs past my gate every morning, with just a slight numbness remaining in two fingers. The effects of bee sting therapy vary wildly. Other people report that it merely helped them wiggle their toes. For someone inflicted with MS that is encouraging news. Hope is huge in the world. There is a sad film of paralysed victims praising the venom as if they’d discovered the fountain of youth .
What first drew me to the bees was my own arthritis. I stung myself for several weeks. It was a curious experiment. Since my wife is allergic, I kept my bees, given to me by a local beekeeper, in a spare bedroom in our barn. I’d sit on the bed, and lift a bee out of the jar with a tweezer and hold it against the skin. The rush was brutal, especially by the time thirty barbs hung like tiny fetishes from my knees. The adrenalin would speed up my metabolism, pounding my heart against my chest, my skin alive with sensitivity, and I’d leak an awful-smelling sweat that, enthusiasts claim, allows the toxins to ooze out. Then the stings had their second pulse. After fifteen minutes I began removing the stingers. They slid out easily if I got the angle right. I’d sit and gaze at the water jar where the crushed and drowned bees had been put to death (it can take a bee many hours to die after releasing its sting), and I felt overwhelmed with the sadness of the world. During the next days my sweat ceased to stink, and I found myself more energized. I lost weight. The pain in my knees went away. Then, after six blessed weeks, the pain returned, so I gave it up, yet I decided to purchase some bees any way. I guess you could say I’d been stung.
For most people bees are scary. There is something about tiny crawling creatures that instinctively repels us. Seals are cute: bees, spiders, wasps — we squash. Through a microscope, though, or in a close-up photograph, they are lush, brilliant, seductive creatures — as beautiful as tigers and flamingoes.
The bees arrived in a small crate built like a miniature hive, called a nuc (pronounced nuke), short for nucleus. A variety of the dark Italian breed, they were quiet, flying around me, but not aggressively while I lifted out the removable frames and inserted them into the ‘super’ that would be their home. My border collie sat curiously at my side, studying this interesting development at the farm. Like most working dogs she wants to know everything in case one day she has to control it.
Then I wiggled the frame with the queen and her attendants, trying to release it from the sticky propolis that’s formulated out of tree sap and used by the bees as a glue. When I lifted her frame, a boiling mass of bees surged towards my face, and for a moment the world went black as they filled my mask’s screen with their angry bodies. I brushed a few away, noticing that the collie was now mysteriously standing at the gate two hundred feet across the pasture, having time-shifted there instantaneously. I slammed the frame into the super and ran for it, pursued by the angry mob. They could tell I was an amateur and decided to teach me a lesson — they didn’t give up the chase until I was a hundred yards away, my skull lumpy with stings.
No one knows yet how to describe a hive of bees, or for that matter, the other great social insects, termites. The swarm, like a human body, is a living, thinking creature. Maurice Maeterlinck, in early 1900s talked of the ‘spirit of the hive’, later terming it a ‘superorganism’, a theory allegedly plagiarized from the South African entomologist, Eugene Marais, earning Maeterlinck some vicious personal attacks. It now appears possible both men unconsciously cribbed the concept from another scientist. Lately, Thomas D. Seeley has begun describing the hive as an amoeba — contracting at night into the perfect 93 degree heat of its own womb and during the day flowing out as far as five miles, morphing sensually, mumbling almost absentmindedly to itself, holding multiple conversations while it feeds and breeds.
One of the ways social insects organize themselves is through pheromones. Odours that give instructions. The honeybee queen secretes some from her mandibles and rubs it all over her body, while her soothing attendants massage her, picking up infentismal amounts of the secretion and oiling their own bodies with it. Then other bees rub this pheromone onto their antennas, and disperse into the hive, passing it along. It’s estimated that the workers will pick up a trace of the queen’s reassuring smell on their antennas at least once a day.
Marais, in his *The Soul of the White Ant*, described several experiments involving the communication system within termite hives. He noted that a certain Dr. Bugnion split a nest with a metal plate several feet wide and high, large and thick enough to prevent odours and sounds from passing through, isolating the queen on one side. The termites continued working. They built perfectly matching arches on opposite sides of the plate, as if it wasn’t there, or the queen had somehow guided them. Only after he assassinated the queen, did confusion fall upon the workers who knew immediately that she was gone — on both sides of the plate. Overwhelmed and sad, the hive collapsed and died. This is why good pest specialists will merely seek the queen and remove her. The work ends when she is gone.
I often wonder how animals mourn. On my farm, I meet death often. The other day a peachick died of blackhead. The peahen crooned beside its body until I buried it. Then she went off and reclined in the sun beside an azalea bush, her brown wing extended protectively over her last surviving chick. With bees, I’ve never noticed any mourning over slain individuals, though the act of stinging will bring a vengeful host. What do they know of death? They certainly mourn when the queen is gone.
I sited one of my hives by the pond, shielded from the wind by a pussy willow clump, the earliest feed for bees, along with the native plum. There’s also a nearby weeping willow, under which we bury the animals we have loved. Each animal is buried with a stoneware or raku pot I made in my studio, the graves marked with distinctive stones found on our farm. There’s the canary, several cats, two dogs, peacocks, and Stonewall Jackson, the old horse who died last year.
Though a farm can be a murderous place, the death of a horse marks you for life. We were lucky enough to find him immediately after his stroke. Semi-paralysed he was thrashing on the ground, trying to rise. Death always tells us how inadequate human language is, our incredible, stupid inarticulateness — I ended up holding Jack’s head in my arms, telling him it was okay to go. At first I’d attempted to revive him. I was so huge with sorrow that I somehow managed to lift him onto his feet. A horse down on the ground will inevitably die, and he knew that too. I leaned against him as long as I could, bracing him on his trembling legs. What crazy creatures humans are. He was just as crazy, shivering, swaying, holding on, until we both folded up and were back on the ground.
Now he’s under the willow, and thistles grow above him. The bees love his grave and its thistles, flying over it on their long dangerous journeys, noticing or not noticing it, mourning or not mourning their many dead. The hive is safe there, surrounded by page wire to keep out the sheep, and whatever marauding animal might desire honey. Humans also walk off with hives — a good hive will contain up to 200 pounds of honey, which can translate into a fair amount of money, and larceny is common to the human heart.
On a cool wall in a cave in Valencia, an eight thousand year old figure dangling on a rope fills his honey basket while angry bees swarm him. Those were the days of extreme honey-collecting. Surprisingly, they haven’t changed much in the remaining wild sectors of the world.
Honey hunting, in Asia and Africa and South America, remains a significant form of collection despite the introduction in the nineteenth century of the rectangular, Langstroth hive. By discovering the ‘bee space,’ the small gap bees will not fill between honeycombs, Lorenzo Langstroth made removable frames within interchangeable ‘supers’ possible, instantly converting beekeeping into a major industry. Before then, hives were generally kept in logs, pottery jars, or wicker skeps covered with mud, and the bees had to be killed or driven off with burning sulphur in order to collect the honey, making it a far more dangerous and less productive enterprise.
In Africa, a bird, the Honey Guide, *Indicator indicator*, lures humans and apes to hives by laming its wing, calling and struggling towards the sweet reward. The grateful honey robber must always leave a comb of honey for the bird, otherwise it will never return again according to legend, or worse — lure the robber next time into a carnivore’s den.
More fascinating than how we find our way to the honey, is how the bees find their life-sustaining nectar. The hive communicates; therefore, it must have a language. Yet for years we regarded ourselves at the only creature with the capability for language. Even before gorillas learned sign language and parrots how to count, the question of animal language exploded when a pioneer botanist devoted himself to the words written by the hive. Karl von Frisch spent decades studying swarms, painting bees, blinding them, gluing up their scent organs, calmly but scientifically torturing them in a thousand original ways as he dissected the living body of the hive until his sometimes diabolical researches pointed towards the dancing bee concept of language.
After a bee finds nectar or pollen, she will return, and dance. The dance is like a fever that travels contagious through the darkness of the combs from one forager to another, each passing along her description of the sun’s position, the variety of flowers, their location, and the quantity. These directions are so precise they can guide a bee over lakes and hills and valleys and around trees, to the food supply, sometimes miles away. Honey has a direction.
This is how Frisch defined one dance — a bee inhales the nectar into her honey stomach, and dusts her legs with pollen; then returns. She is met first by guard bees, and then by storage bees. This is where the song begins. If the flower is close, the honeybee will perform a simple round dance, calibrated to the direction of the sun. One of her greatest directional tools is her eyesight.The eye of the bee is composed of thousands of ommatidia, or smaller eyes, hexagon shaped, which orient her colour vision towards the blue end of the spectrum. Red appears black to her, or shades of grey, though she sees hints of blue, green, yellow, and orange. Viewing video reproductions of the bee’s point of view is like taking a roller-coaster ride on Acid. Her kaleidoscopic world is a mosaic of stark colours, reminding me of the way badly functioning fluorescent lamps can sometimes make a room eerie; combine this with the helicopter antics of her membrane wings, and you get a vision of the world that would nauseate most of us. Her eyes also act as polarizing filters, lining up sunlight in a directional sign of little rods all pointing away from the sun. As long as there is one tiny hole in the cloud cover, the bee will be able to take a perfect position, and add that to her location memory. Above her two compound eyes, she also has three photocell-like eyes which can tell time exactly by the intensity of sunlight.
When a bee flings herself from the landing board, helicoptering up to eye level, she is a highly charged erotic creature. Her duty is to ravish flowers. She has dreamed the dance of direction and the high frequency legends uttered on the combs, the pheromones, and the whiffs of pollen and nectar brought back from the fields. She zig-zags, finding her course, tapping down to confirm pheromone footprints on the leafs and grass left by earlier foragers from the hive, seeking the carnal heart of the flower. Various kinds of solitary and social bees have developed lovers’ tools to suck up the nectar and stimulate the anthers dripping with pollen. Some tumble through hidden trap doors, wallowing in pools of nectar and are then stroked by pollen-bearing hairs. All this voluptuous activity fertilizes the flowers and feeds the hive. Some bees are greedy, ripping their way through the petals to bathe in bright wombs of nectar and pollen, others are more devious lovers, slipping into the petalled sheaths and vibrating their wings at exactly the right frequency to make all the pollen come tumbling down. In the world of the bee, dinner and sex are simultaneous.
Most flowers have adapted to the bee, trading their nectar for pollination. Many have what’s known as nectar guides or honey darts, brilliant strikes of colour pointing the way like incandescent road signs. In others, like the Meadow Cranesbill, the lines are almost invisible to us because the petal reflects ultraviolet light. To the bee it is pale with stark black lines. The bees are a loyal bunch and will almost exclusively exploit a specific kind of blossom when it is in season. This is called flower constancy.
Today, in the smouldering heat of the afternoon, I watched my Shungiku Chrysanthemum being overwhelmed by a drunken flock of foragers, luxuriating among its velvety red and yellow petals in an orgy of debauched feeding. They are rewarded not only with nutritious pollen but nectar, the high energy drink containing sucrose, fructose and glucose among other blessings. Nectar is so potent and the bee so mechanically efficient that it has been calculated a single bee could travel 2 million miles on a gallon of nectar. I gaze ruefully at my old farm truck and dream of honey-fuelled engines.
Over the years, flowers and bees have evolved to fit each other like gloves and hands, creating monstrous, needy combinations; especially with the notorious odour deceits and tricky, visual traps of orchids — other mutations have led to long-tubed flowers and long-tongued bees dancing together in the sun through the fields of evolution. There’s a species of quasisocial bee, the Euglossa, a beautiful creature, often metallic blue, bronzed or burnished like gold. It’s said the males are driven wild by the scent of a specific orchid which they madly attack, and then smelling each other, clump into a writhing group called a lek. The female Euglossines ignore the orchids but the motley crew of seething, brilliant males will catch her attention and she will dive among them and choose her mate.
The life of the hive, like most farm life, is female. Males serve for stud service or slaughter. In the hive, every worker can become a queen — if she is fed royal jelly — but one suffices. Multiple drones hatch in the spring. Big and useless they roam about like bumbling bachelors, enjoying the run of the combs, living in luxury, sometimes moving from hive to hive, always accepted, awaiting their moment of glory. The young queen will make several preliminary flights, scouting her countryside, perhaps to remember it for the dark years ahead. Then one day, she will leap out of her hive and take to the air, releasing a jet trail of pheromones, emitting a chip-chip-chip sound as she makes a delighted lunge for the sun. So loud is her cry, so strong her odour, males will find her from hives 10 miles away. Those that fly the highest and fastest will reach her in the ‘drone zone.’ a hundred feet above the ground. A few Beekeepers claim they have heard the snap of their tiny genitalia as they break away from the queen and tumble to the ground ripped apart by their one act of copulation. Sex and death at high altitude.
Once is not enough for a queen. She will accept several drones, ensuring the genetic diversity of the hive, each one having to lunge higher and harder in the ecstatic nuptial flight, lushly described in Maeterlinck’s *The Life of the Bee*, perhaps the most romantic passage of natural history ever written.
After the nuptial flight, she returns triumphant trailing her lovers’ genitalia like streamers, and the failed drones revert to their old bachelor mode, mumbling about the hive while the female workers grow more and more annoyed at them, until late in the summer they are evicted. Some will fight bitterly, uselessly, the relentless females shoving them out of the hive, suicidally stinging them to death if they resist, heaping up clumps of bodies on the landing and tumbling them down into the waiting mandibles of the voracious wasps. The slaughter of the summer drones occurs yearly.
Sometimes, I enjoy standing in front of my best hive, watching the foragers navigate around me as if I were a tree trunk. They walk out onto the landing, and lift up vertically, take a sighting, and then wander off on their missions. One of the fortunate and necessary facts of bee life is that, resembling human society, they have their own solitary independents, the visionaries who refuse to take instruction. Like daydreaming poets, they seem as lazy as those mysterious ants that run up and down a line, never packing anything — yet they are the foragers destined to discover new sources of nectar. They also must tell lies, because occasionally they are not believed. One diabolical researcher released some foragers at a feeding station placed in a boat in the middle of a lake. Few returned to the station from the hive, though they accepted another offering to a control group fed from a station on the shore.
The landing board of the hive usually displays a small phalanx of guards, waiting like Sumo wrestlers at the start of a match, ready to fight off wasps, beetles, bumblebees and sometimes, mice or birds or bears. A few foragers arrive like drunks after a wild afternoon of partying on the hallucinatory offerings of the flowers, but generally, the returning foragers, if loaded down , dive straight for the entrance. With their full honey stomach and stuffed leg baskets called corbicula, they are pack horses of the sky. Work is the business of their life. In order to make a pound of honey a single bee would have to fly three times the circumference of the planet. When you consider the amount of honey in a single hive, the reason for all the activity is obvious.
As each worker matures, from hatch to death, she goes through many changes, first secreting wax, manufacturing and lining the hexagonal cells — a nearly perfect shape for both storage capacity and strength; then she morphs into a storage bee, or sentry, and finally matures into a forager, the most dangerous stage in her career. Despite the traps I’ve hung, and the odd, lucky gumbooting of a low-flying wasp into oblivion, a few exhausted foragers fall to the grass in front of the landing, where the yellow-jackets lurk. The wasp will rush over and begin slicing up their victim before she can regain the air again — she is eaten alive and struggling, the full honey stomach a tasty snack that Shakespeare recognized, since he has Bottom say: “kill me a red-hipped humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good mounsieur, bring me the honey-bag.” Entomologists believe that bees began their evolutionary separation from wasps due to a similar habit. Dining on aphids, they noticed that some were made sweeter by the nectar they collected — a wasp’s version of lamb with mint sauce. They gradually came to prefer the nectar straight up, and thus the bee was born.
If the forager makes it to the landing, she is greeted by the self-important guards who give her a quick smell and frisk. She will often lift her butt in the air and fan her wings, delivering an odour account of herself and her journey, and regurgitate a treat of nectar to an overly aggressive guard. Approved, she enters the darkened hive and passes the pollen to a storage bee who quickly packs it away. Then she regurgitates her nectar into the mouth of another storage bee. This is where the miracle of honey occurs. The storage bee compulsively flicks her tongue coated with a film of nectar, air-drying it and introducing an enzyme, invertase, which allows the final conversion into honey; it’s then packed away, and fanned constantly, to reduce the moisture level further. The bee literally deserves the Homeric epithet, honey-tongued, for it is on the bee’s tongue that this glorious gift of the earth is made, the sole source of sugar in the western world until only a few centuries ago. Nutritious and bacteria resistant, honey was also used to treat human wounds before the age of antibiotics.
Once the forager has off-loaded, she begins her dance.
If the flower is far (more than a 100 metres), instead of the round dance I described earlier, she will perform what we call the waggle dance, this time figure-eighting the direction while wagging her butt. The bees touch antenna and the feverish dance sweeps through the hive. Decisions are made. The swarm focuses on a single source. Flower constancy gives them the fussiness of poets, deciding they are all postmoderns this week, romantics next, until they are glutted with their source, and move on.
Using the calibrations from her polarizing eyes and internal clock, a honeybee dancing for thirty minutes is so accurate she will adjust her dance several degrees to allow for the movement of the sun. Longitude and latitude are an inherited trait. Studies have found similar displays in the stingless bees of South America and the fierce giant honeybee of Asia, the *Apis dorsata*. These enormous honeybees prefer living in the high reaches of the Tualang tree where, 250 feet above ground, they are safe from the honey-seeking sun bear. Notoriously aggressive, their immense hives have been utilized by bandits who gathered swarms and adorned their treasure caves with them.
The *Apis dorsata* was said to be a Hindu handmaiden, known as Hitam Manis or ‘Dark Sweetness. The Sultan’s son fell in love with her, but she was ejected from the palace by the Sultan because of her commoner lineage. A melee broke out, she fled, and she was somehow speared to death; then she magically transformed into a giant bee.
Much later, the prince was gathering honey in a Tualang tree. He hacked up a hive and called for his cowhide basket to be lowered, but when it arrived on the ground, it was filled with his own dismembered body. This was his punishment for using metal on the hive, for it was a metal spear that had pierced his beloved, but she had mercy on his brutalized body and rained a golden shower upon the basket and he magically reformed into a living prince. She did not have the same opportunity herself, living forever in her magical hive, surrounded by the hives of her handmaidens. She lives on today, though the giant bees are becoming endangered due to deforestation — their legendary honey hunters, a dying tribe. The *Apis dorsata* were responsible for the infamous ‘yellow rain’ that fell upon American soldiers in Vietnam, many of whom remain convinced the Viet Cong were using chemical warfare on them. It was only bee shit.
The Asian honey harvesters continue to use wood and hide and bone to harvest the nectar of the handmaiden, and they refer to themselves as her handmaidens, or Dayangs, hanging in the dark of moonless nights, hundreds of feet above ground where they hammer the hive with a burning torch, creating a ‘shower of sparks’ which the enraged and dangerous bees follow to the ground while the chanting Dayang carves out huge combs of honey with the scapula of a cow, gathering as much as a thousand pounds from a single tree.
The *Apis dorsata* is the only bee that dances in daylight. A returning forager lands on the sunny side of the long, wide, flat, single-combed hive, where she dances exactly to the vertical if the nectar comes directly from the angle of the sun, or whatever degree to left or right it lies.
Everywhere in the world the bees dance their poetry of food and life.
This is where the story begins again. Like any story it is about more stories, and how they begin. Frisch’s theory about their language was so astounding that after a few initial years of disbelief, scientists applauded him. The dancing bee hypothesis was too beautiful to reject. It soon merged with the canon of human thought. Frisch won the Nobel Prize in 1973. Yet while Frisch was being crowned, a stubborn scientist named Adrian Wenner denied the dance that was evident to every researcher who looked into hives. Instead, he claimed each foraging bee rediscovered the flower by smell. The dance was only ornament, not a real language. Other studies demonstrated that released smells from the Nasonov gland, and pheromones, also provided clues, along with the high-frequency sounds the wings of a dancing bee.
Wenner burst upon the scene like a young Cassius Clay,’floating like a butterfly, and stinging like a bee.’ Soon joined by Patrick Wells and a cluster of other ‘rogue’ researchers, his theory was greeted with such outrage that most scientific publications refused to publish him or his supporters. In the years since, Wenner and his colleagues have developed good arguments for their odour hypothesis, despite the virulent reaction of the mainstream scientific community, which acted as if it had just been stung. Since they were unable to publish much in the journals, Wenner and Wells artfully performed a classic example of lateral thinking. They wrote a witty book about the dustup itself. *Anatomy of a Controversy*, published in 1990 was greeted with rage and praise, but slowly, many entomologists have begun to find truth to their arguments, or at least the odour discovery. Probably the most hilarious aspect of this debate, is that for years, one disagreement revolved around a single study based on the behaviour of 37 bees. If nothing else the controversy exposes the lunacy that can inhabit scientific research. Also interesting are their accounts of similar, bitter denouncements of other scientists by their peers, until history eventually proved them correct. A little more than a century ago the greatest scientists of France scoffed at the notion that burning lights fell randomly out of the sky. These days we call them meteors.
As with many heated debates, neither side is entirely right. The truth takes all of them. The real answer appears to be an amalgam of dance and odours, not only from the nectar itself, but of the bee’s own making, and includes high frequency sounds of up to 250 cycles per second. They dance, they sing, they rub their wings, they release strange and wondrous scents, they seek random directions. Their language and behaviour is more complex than we are capable of imagining.
Sometimes, when I am lying down, resting in the orchard with my girls humming around me, I watch them dip and seek and dream and hang out at the landing pad, and I think about language. I long ago realized we only have rudimentary ideas about how communication works, though we constantly insult other creatures, insisting they are unintelligent because they can’t or won’t communicate or behave according to our standards. (Parrots are notorious for their devious corruptions of intelligence tests.) It’s not a question of whether animals communicate or whether they have structured languages, it is whether our understanding of language is sufficient.
Western thought, over the centuries, has regarded language as exclusive to human society, yet as our knowledge evolved so did our definitions. We intrinsically want to judge *the other* — what we don’t know. There are always barbarians at the gate, or savage beasts, dumb brutes. Now we are discovering the dumb brutes are us. Savage, blinkered creatures, only recently have we begun to leap beyond our own point of view, literally into the skin of *the other,* unravelling the intricacies of how so-called primitive societies work. The term primitive people has become over the last fifty years, an intemperate, racist remark. Many ‘primitive’ societies had a more mature understanding of language than our self-proclaimed advanced western society, driven by the myth of the scientific method — that flimsy, flawed tool we use to convince ourselves we are logical.
Throughout history rogue philosophers, poets, and prophets have offered alternate versions of communication theory, but they’ve been mostly ignored. During the last century philosophers and semioticians (Umberto Eco) and deconstructionist critics (Jacques Derrida) undertook a serious dismantling of the simple surface of the way we communicate, though most deconstructionist thought is buried in a stubborn academese that itself blocks communication. Still, many of their ideas are now part of the lexicon. During the last thirty years we’ve begun agreeing that communication is a dreamlike thing, hard to label, it’s only limitations the arbitrary ones we load onto it. If anything, the world of communication theory is approaching Ezra Pound’s shifty definition of poetry as ‘intense language.’
Language is all around us. Yet we cannot hear or see because like the characters in Kurt Vonnegut’s *Harrison Bergeron**, we shade our eyes, plug our ears, stop up our noses, cover our skin. Of all creatures on the talking earth, we are perhaps the one most incapable of a real conversation with our world.
But the talking of the earth goes on, everywhere. Iguanas converse using push-ups. They flash the bright skin flaps under their chins, bobbing in complex patterns that tell stories of hot rocks and love affairs. They perform manoeuvres awkwardly labelled with dumb, cute terms by researchers — the ‘funky jerk’ or the ‘shudder bob,’ a courtship dialogue full of walking gymnastics. Sometimes they, like us, sing soliloquies to themselves. They have regional dialects too. An iguana from Mexico might not entirely follow the conversation of some sweet lizard from Arizona — though they have a syntax and grammar common to each other — so they can probably make out fine.
Recent work on the Caribbean reef squid, *Sepioteuthis sepioidea*, has shown they conduct conversations using colour. They are constantly talking, wooing, celebrating, congregating. Every night they disperse into the deep Caribbean to hunt and feed, then return at dawn to shallow ‘hot spots’, squid clubs, where they party and yak. They have extraordinary control over their colour, using patterns, hues, intensities, as words. They can hold two extended conversations at once. One side of a squid can be busily threatening a male on the left, while simultaneously flashing its elaborate courtship conversation to a female on the right. How many guys can do that at a singles bar?
The dialects of killer whales are readily distinguishable, as well as dolphins, prairie dogs, and sparrows. Prairie dogs allegedly have different words for different human beings. One of them is: “He’s got a gun!” I’ve heard ravens use their version of that same word after they killed one chicken too many at my farm. They disappear real fast if they see me haul out the hardware, since they’ve already learned from other, more aggressive farmers what rifles can accomplish. Amazonian parrots not only have unique dialects, but those living on the borders of different ranges can speak in both dialects. Bilingual parrots? Too bad we aren’t intelligent enough to understand what they are saying.
Deconstructionists, semiotician, philosophers, and biologists, are working towards a new vision of language. Information theorists are formulating concepts such as ‘maximum entropy,’ the number of signals in a communication system. According to this measurement, the iguana has an index of 13. English has 1,908. The honeybee, 25. Another measurement calculated is ‘evenness of a communication code,’ a crude method for deciding on efficiency of gestures or sounds. When this measure is applied to human beings, we are a useless 0.01. The chickadee is 0.14, and lizard language an impressive 0.48. That’s talking!
I have the reputation of being a great storyteller, according to some people. The truth is I am a lousy talker. I’ve heard tapes and watched films of myself. Yet I communicate easily. My father was a Cockney potato peddlar born within the sound of Big Ben, and I inherited what little of the gift I have from him. I grew up on the road, selling potato dreams to people who didn’t know they were hungry. When I stand back and analyse my stories, I realize that I, like most of us, use more than words. It’s not the stories at all, but my unconscious manipulation of the space between people, eye gestures, hand movements, time, the weighing of emotions among creatures in an enclosed space. I probably change smells when I am talking. I am inarticulate by our common standards; instead, I ‘d like to think I talk like the bee talks.
Great, invisible stories are being written all around us, every day. Who knows, if we don’t destroy ourselves and the earth first, we may evolve enough to learn the language of the world. I think not. It’s full of ineffable secrets and mysteries, and we are ignorant, silly creatures. While tiny bees are creating legends of giant boulders and lost fields with gleaming nectar-full flowers using their symbolic and creative vocabulary of smell and touch and light particles and dance and squirted chemicals and high frequency vibrations, we are still arguing about whether they have a language. As Paul Newman once said immediately before being shot to death in the classic cult film, *Cool Hand Luke*: “What we got here, is a failure to communicate.” The blind, destroying greed of our species dumbly rolls over everything in its path while I sit in my false little oasis of an organic farm, surrounded by the monstrous machine of globalization and big business. We take everything beautiful and use it to Wal-Mart our lives. Nothing is safe. We have used bees in warfare, pouring their honey on our wounds. The Japanese in WWII glued microscopic messages to bees in order to send information through enemy lines.
For thousands of years the Americas thrived without the honeybee. Pollination was accomplished by solitary bees; the bumblebees, mason bees, carpenter bees, stingless bees, etc., Mesoamericans learned how to extract small quantities of honey from a few varieties. A century ago in North America the natives looked up in horror at a sky full of ‘stinging flies,’ for if the swarm came, that meant white farmers like myself were not far behind, ready to colonize and change the land. Now in this new world, I am also endangered. A farming community that consisted of 96% of the population a century ago is down to 2%. Farmers spend more money on chemicals than machinery or seed. Their pesticides are poisoning millions of bees, already suffering from other introduced pests, foulbrood, varrora mite, tracheal mites. The wild honeybee is near extinct, the large commercial apiary operations floating in a plethora of chemicals. These islands where I live used to be the last land in North America that produced organic honey. Then a holly farmer illegally introduced bees from the mainland, so he could get more berries, and better prices for his Christmas crop. The imported bees were infested with varrora mites. That was the death of the wild honeybees on Salt Spring Island.
Yet I stubbornly continue to learn the world of the singing bees who inadvertently teach me small, new lessons every day while going about their lives. Civilization, communication, progress, these are the myths we tell ourselves. I don’t have faith in them any more, but what’s left of the natural world, though it is often brutal, I can still love. Resting my hand against the hive I can feel the thrum of their conversations, and I dream about all the magic going on inside. Sometimes, on my better days, I think that language is just another word for the poetry of the earth.