In 1962 Sylvia Plath wrote The Bee Meeting, a poem in which she describes her experience of attending a meeting of beekeepers in North Tawton, a village in Devon. Last weekend, fifty-five years later, the Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group gathered to remove a colony from a soon-to-be-demolished cottage in South Leigh. I was struck by the parallels between the two meetings. I couldn’t remember Plath’s entire poem, but lines and images kept springing into my head as we worked: the masked beekeepers appearing as ‘knights in visors’; the shared experiences of ‘hunting the queen’ and of standing in a meadow, staying so still that the bees ‘will think I am cow parsley’.
Plath’s poem has been analysed and deconstructed in many different ways but I’m going to ignore any psychological, metaphorical, political, literary or biographical analysis and focus solely the surface level. It is a description of a bee meeting, and we can look at the activities of the beekeepers, and see what is still recognisable at a modern meeting.
Plath’s beekeepers appear to be gathering to inspect a colony of bees. Our operation was a cut-out – knocking through a wall to remove a colony, and then rehousing it in a hive. Despite the different activities, many of the elements are similar; we hold the same tools, wear the same protective clothes and use the same techniques when handling the bees. And we ask the same questions to determine the health of the colony – Is the queen present and healthy? How much brood is there? How much honey and pollen? And is there any evidence of disease?
Plath (who had not started beekeeping at the time she attended the meeting) arrives without any protective clothing. The ‘secretary of bees’ brings her a ‘shop smock’ – a long jacket, which buttons up from her neck to her knees. She also borrows a hat, and a ‘black veil’ which ‘molds to [her] face’. The other beekeepers have ‘square black heads’, suggesting that they have square frames inside the veils to keep the fabric away from their faces. Plath’s narrator stands back, which places her at a distance from the beekeepers’ ‘operation’.
For the South Leigh ‘operation’ we wore one-piece suits – with head-covering zipped-on to form a bee-tight seal around the neck. Most were the hooped ‘astronaut’ style hoods, but some wore square and circular designs. To an outside observer there is something almost ritualistic about the bee-uniform – like the white robes of a druidic cult, or of a rescue team about to enter a nuclear fallout zone.
There is also an anonymity within the suit. Behind the masks we seemed interchangeable – on two occasions I asked a question to a hooded figure, only to be answered by someone else’s voice. Plath describes the masks as ‘disguises’, and it still seems an accurate metaphor.
Unprepared, Plath’s narrator feels ‘fear’. Our beekeepers were calm. There was a brief moment of unease when we first broke into the cavity and a few bees came flying out to investigate. But in full suits, well-prepared, and all with experience of handling bees, there was not any obvious fear from the Oxfordshire beekeepers.
The bees at South Leigh did not seem aggressive or angry. If anything, they seemed confused – the back wall of their home had been crowbarred-away, and they did not know how to react. I wondered if such non-aggression was symptomatic of a problem – perhaps a lack of energy, or a sign of a weak colony. But it may just be a more pacifist strain of bees, with less predisposition toward anger and attack.
Plath’s bees show ‘animosity’ towards the beekeepers. The keepers are using at least one smoker, and are producing enough smoke for it to ‘roll’ in the grove. Commentators on the poem write about smoke being used to ‘drive the bees out of the hive’, which is incorrect. For a beekeeper, smoke works in two ways – primarily it hides the smell of communication-pheromones, so the bees cannot transmit messages to each other. Secondly, it causes the worker-bees to believe there is a fire nearby, so they gather honey to take to a new home. The shape of a bee’s abdomen makes it more difficult for her to sting when she is carrying honey, so honey-filled bees are generally less aggressive.
Plath’s understanding of the ‘hive mind’ is interesting. she describes the ‘mind of the hive’ thinking ‘this is the end of everything’. If a large amount of smoke is being used, there is a chance that the communication-signals are jammed, so there would be no collective understanding. The individual bees may believe it is armageddon, but there is probably no consensus.
The poem’s description of the ‘hysterical elastics’ of the bees is mirrored (perhaps intentionally) in Eddie Izzard’s ‘covered in bees‘ standup routine. “I want bees on elastic,” demands Izzard’s beekeeper-character, “so when they get pollen they come back here”. There is in both an implied elasticity – the bees bounce out of the hive, but they will eventually be pulled back towards the colony. Although they are not physically attached, there is a constant force which causes them to return.
Plath’s beekeepers are equipped with feather dusters, presumably for sweeping bees from the combs. We used a combination of feathers and bee-brushes for the purpose. For inspecting a hive a long goose-feather is a useful way to gently sweep bees away. However, when moving bees from one place to another a swift movement with a soft-haired bee-brush can be more effective, especially if trying to work quickly. I have not yet tried herding bees with a feather duster – it feels as if it could be effective, although there’s a danger of bees getting trapped in the feathers.
It is not usually important to find the queen – if there is unsealed brood (or single-eggs laid neatly in the bottom of cells) that is a clear indication that she is healthy and has been present recently – the beekeeper does not need to see her to know that she is there. Plath’s beekeepers are ‘hunting the queen’, but fail to find her – ‘the old queen does not show herself’. She heads for the dark spaces, and hides among other bees. ‘She is clever’.
For our swarm cutout, finding the queen was a priority – but queen-spotting is a skill that natural-beekeepers have less cause to develop than conventional beekeepers. Our queen was elusive too – well-hidden enough to escape our eyes. We were unsure whether she had remained on the brood comb, or scurried into the inaccessible crevice above the window-cavity. If she was on the brood comb she would have been swept safely into the hive. If she had hidden, there was a chance that she could be separated from the bulk of the colony. The behaviour of the other bees would eventually alert us to her location.
Plath’s beekeepers find queen-cells in the hive – the ‘fingerjoint cells’ on the edge of the honeycomb. When a colony of bees want to create a new queen, they build these elongated cells. Any larva developing in a queen-cell will be fed with a different substance from other bees, and will develop into a queen instead of a worker. Once hatched, the old and new queens may coexist, or the old queen may leave the hive with a swarm. If the bees are building more than one queen, the first-hatched queen will find the other queen-cells, and sting their inhabitants to death before they emerge. It is perhaps this which Plath is referring to when she calls the new queen a ‘murderess’.
The beekeepers’ decision-making is opaque to the poem’s narrator: “what has been achieved?” she asks – she has been too far away to hear the group, or perhaps the beekeepers know their routine well enough to have worked without discussion or explanation. If it is an inspection, they may have achieved a lot without physically changing anything inside the hive – they have learnt the condition of the colony, they have discovered whether the queen is laying eggs, they have checked for signs of parasites or disease. Even if nothing has materially been ‘achieved’, the acquisition of knowledge is an achievement in itself.
However, there is evidence in the poem that the ‘operation’ is not simply an inspection. The villagers remove the developing virgin queens from the hive (‘they are moving the virgins’), but (Plath notes) ‘there will be no killing’. We must assume that the queen cells are taken to be placed elsewhere – possibly into queenless colonies, or into hives with failing queens.
Another element of the text possibly supports this assumption. In the fourth stanza, she mentions ‘strips of tinfoil’. My first assumption that these were strips of foil hung near the apiary to scare off birds with reflected sunlight (in the same way that people in the 1990s hung unwanted CDs in their vegetable gardens). However, a method of protecting the queen cells involves wrapping them tin foil. When introducing the cells to a new hive, the tinfoil prevents the workers from damaging the unhatched queen. As the beekeepers are bringing strips of tinfoil, I think we can assume that this is their purpose.
The poet shows an awareness of the flowers, an awareness which is familiar to all who spend time with bees. In any landscape we find ourselves searching for bright blooms and nectar – asking: “where would I forage, if I were a bee?”. Plath’s narrator has this reaction too – she describes the scent of the hawthorn flowers, the cream-and-scarlet of bean-flowers, and the yellow purses of the gorse. In her smock she is as white as the milkweed flower, and when she stands still, she imagines that the bees will mistake her for cow parsley. The poem is full of flowers.
One mystery remains. Plath describes the villagers opening the ‘chambers’ in search of the queen, so the hive is presumably a series of stacked boxes – a Warré, WBC, National, or something of that general shape. However, this hive is described as a ‘long box’. These multi-chambers hives may be tall, but are unlikely to be described as ‘long’. Perhaps it is a variant of a top-bar design, a type of hive which is both long and has ‘chambers’.
“Why am I cold”? she asks.
Because the evening has come, and you have not been aware of the passing of time. You have only a summer dress. Time seems to flow differently when working with bees: we observe the bees for ten minutes, and find an hour has passed without us noticing. The Oxfordshire meeting seemed very quick, but by the time we had finished the clock in the car showed late-afternoon. When working with bees, the bees decide the pace of time, and the beekeeper must work to their speed and rhythms.
The full text of “The Bee Meeting” can be read here.