Sunday, September 11, 2022

'Don't you go' — Breaking the bad news to bees

Bee hives at the Chicago Botanic Garden

      "Oh no!" I said, surprised though not stricken, to learn of Queen Elizabeth II's death Thursday afternoon on Twitter. I immediately passed the news on — informing my wife, who was sitting a few feet from me. Since then I, no doubt like you, have been eagerly lapping at the endless ocean of reports and commentaries on the seismic shift, because that's what royalty does: give us something grand to think about, embroider our drab, work-a-daddy lives with regal purples and heraldic oranges.
      Like most, I imagine, I was pleased that Sad Sack Charles finally got his big promotion, and understood, if not entirely appreciated, those who used the moment to remind us what brutal imperialists the Brits used to be. Though it does seem bad form. I've gone to the funerals of people who had significant flaws, yet managed not to announce those flaws in a loud voice across the funeral parlor. But I understand the motivation. Someone used the queen's passing to tweet the opening sentence of Patrick Freyne's delicious analysis of royalty and celebrity on the occasion of Oprah's interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last year. I admired its concision, metaphor and pacing and passed the lines along:
Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.
      Prose like that reinforced my natural inclination to say nothing. I don't have a dog in this race, nor any particular insight to add. When I tried to ponder writing something, the first thought that came to mind — trying unsuccessfully to arrange tea with the Queen when I went to London to give a speech in 2009 — was not about her at all, but about me, my go-to inclination that I constantly battle. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," Wittgenstein writes. Sound advice.
      But my 48 hours of unusual reticence crumbled at a touch Saturday when I saw a brief report from Rolling Stone, of all places, headlined, with beautiful simplicity, "Queen Elizabeth II's Bees Have Been Informed of Her Death."
     Normally, implausible news should be checked out, but this, by Daniel Kreps, has a purity, sweetness and veracity that immediately manifests itself in the opening lines:
     The hives of bees that reside within the gardens of Buckingham Palace have been informed of Queen Elizabeth II’s death.
     In keeping with one of the stranger traditions connected to the British royal family, the palace’s official beekeeper broke the news of Her Majesty’s death at the age of 96 to the roughly 30,000 bees currently on the grounds, with the royal beekeeper also tying black ribbons around the hives in memory of Queen Elizabeth II.
     I would stake my reputation on that being true. A thousand writers from the Onion working for a century couldn't approach that tone. And if it isn't true, well then I will happily, as Sherlock Holmes always threatened to do, retire to Sussex and keep bees.
     I don't want to seize Kreps' work — click on the link, it's the best thing you'll read today — though to urge you toward it, I'll share the words that royal beekeeper John Chappie used to break the bad news:
     "The mistress is dead, but don’t you go. Your master will be a good master to you."
     Reading that gave me a mad impulse to again ask Mayor Lori Lightfoot to meet me at the hives which, for years, were on the roof atop City Hall. Then I remembered that, a) she always refuses, via her underlings and b) the hives have been removed, I was told when I was fact-checking the book, which of course has a few lines about Chicago beekeeping. As to whether the bees were exiled through Lightfoot's hostility toward bees — maybe she was stung once as a lass in Massillon and harbors grudges, her particular genius, or maybe as sentient creatures other than herself, they naturally draw her contempt. Or maybe she is completely indifferent to bees — that sounds right — and the hives were dismantled independent to her, as part of the general program of deterioration that grips the city. 
     Anyway, the queen is gone and Chicago hives are gone, I am told. In Britain, the bees now labor for King Charles III, and know it.



  1. "Talking to your bees is a very old Celtic custom (known in other parts of Europe, too) that made it to the Appalachians. You always tell the bees when someone is born, dies, comes or goes—because if you don’t keep them informed, they’ll fly away."

    1. Ah. As in "Go Tell the Bees that I Am Gone" now I fully understand the title

  2. As with most poetry and art, I never could understand the purpose of a Monarchy in this day and age.
    It’s sort of like religion. It had its usefulness when people relied on the belief in a superpower to explain why such bad stuff happens. Monarchies served a similar purpose. Blind faith in an assumed higher power.
    Apparently many people still believe those things while curiously not believing in the importance in bees whose power we truly need to survive.

  3. Yes, I've heard of the tradition that bees must be kept informed. Knowing of his proclivities for growing things, I'm sure Charles will be an attentive master. I will probably be not the first to take Neil to task for averting that Sherlock Holmes only threatened to retire to the south downs to keep bees. He did indeed do so. As chronicled by Watson in "His last Bow." The British library will no doubt harbour copies of his monograph, "A Practical Handbook on Bee Culture, with some observations upon the segregation of the Queen."

  4. I wish I could remember more from my European History class in high school, but 1963 was a long time ago. I had a superb, no-nonsense teacher, who taught like a college-level professor. I took good notes, and he held my interest, and I got an A. The two prettiest girls in the class wanted to cheat off me. And I let them.

    One of the things I clearly remember is "the divine right of kings". That was both a political and a religious doctrine. It meant that a monarch was given the right to rule by God alone. His authority could not be questioned in any way, because he ruled in God's name. To rebel against the monarchy was to rebel against God...and it was the ultimate sin and the worst kind of insubordination.

    Human beings can withstand a great deal, but only so much. And human nature being what it is, inevitably the ‘enough is enough’ point, was reached. The point when the subjects said (or sang): "We're not gonna take it anymore." God, shmod.

    European history...and human history...contain many such examples. The ones that come most readily to mind are the revolutions in England, France, and Russia. And our own, of course. Blind faith only lasts so long.

  5. Although she was 96 the Queen did not seem to have lingered with greatly diminished capabilities. For which one thinks she is probably grateful. Tennyson wrote a lovely poem titled "Tithonus" on the subject, the first lines of which are:
    "The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
    The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
    Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath
    And after many of summer dies the swan."


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