The birds and the bees

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair–
The bees are stirring–birds are on the wing–
And winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

— “Work Without Hope”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

One of the great pleasures of the garden is the quiet moments—the cup of coffee on the deck in the morning. A walk around the garden to see what’s coming into bloom.

Butterflies swoop and glide on air currents we cannot see. A hummingbird visits a flower, then darts away and hovers before another flower. What determines this erratic path? One sunny morning last week, we watched a bumblebee and a hummingbird at work in the same group of Martagon lilies, such an extreme contrast in velocities that the two of them might have inhabited parallel universes.

My daughter is fascinated by bees. A better gardener than I ever was, she is diligent and knowledgeable. She tells me of the resurgence of Cooper’s hawks in our area and of the various kinds of bees she sees in her garden: native bees, bumblebees and the mason bees (solitary bees) she houses and overwinters. She says she can watch the bees for long periods of time as they go about their business: it seems almost to be a form of meditation for her. She points out that birds eat the seeds we plant and butterflies, in their caterpillar stage, wreak havoc on foliage and the blossoms that would otherwise become fruit. From the point of view of the gardener, bees are the best of the pollinators because they do no harm to the garden.

The Greeks considered the bee. . .a sign of eloquence or poetic gifts, partly perhaps because of its buzzing or murmuring but mainly as a natural extension of idioms still common in English and other modern languages such as ‘honey-voiced,’ ‘sweet-lipped,’ and ‘mellifluous.’

— “Bee”, Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols

From the time of Plato, bees have also served as symbols for the poets themselves:

For the poets tell us, don’t they, that the melodies they bring us are gathered from rills that run with honey, out of glens and gardens of the Muses, and they bring them as bees do honey, flying like the bees? And what they say is true, for a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy. . .

–Plato, Ion 534a7-b6, trans. Lane Cooper

“Virgil and other ancients believed that bees had no sexual intercourse but gathered their young from among the flowers.” (Ferber). And yet, we have the well known expression “the birds and the bees,” used to this day to refer to those difficult but necessary talks we have with children to explain where babies come from, using a relatively innocent story of pollination (the bees), seeds and new plants; and eggs (the birds) in a warm, cozy nest followed by the appearance of new, small lives.


6 thoughts on “The birds and the bees

  1. Pingback: My Room | the painting gardener

  2. Pingback: Illustration Basics: Part 2 | in the classroom again

  3. I absolutely LOVE the painting! I need to see your paintings the next time we’re by, I think I’ve missed out on some of your wonderful creations 🙂


    • Thanks, Natalie – anytime. I’m not sure if I’m quite finished with the painting. I’m thinking of inscribing an Emily Dickinson poem around the border of the large white square. First, I will have to choose one–the bee occurs frequently in her poetry.


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