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The Bees That Live on Human Tears

The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images
Matthias Trentsensky: Bees and Bee-keeping, from “The Young Landsman,” Vienna, 1845

“Tiny bees found in woman’s eye, feeding off tears.” The CNN headline on April 10 seemed like the usual gross-out clickbait—giant tapeworms, flesh-eating bacteria—lurking under the incessant “breaking news.” A Taiwanese woman had come to the hospital complaining of a swollen eye. Discerning microscopic legs poking out from under her eyelid, the ophthalmologist pried out first one tiny bee and then another, finally extracting four in all.

Such “sweat bees,” as they are known—including a new species discovered in Brooklyn—live near graveyards and fallen trees, the article explained, and like to feed on animal sweat and tears. The woman suspected the bees might have blown into her eye during a recent visit to a relative’s grave. It was a good thing she had not waited, the doctor said. “Otherwise I might have had to take her eyeball out to save her life.”

Well, thanks a lot for that, as my son said sarcastically, when I sent him the link. But something about the story, beyond its gothic, flinch-inducing details, stayed with me. Where had I seen it before? And then I had it. In Elizabeth Bishop’s surrealist poem “The Man-Moth,” inspired by a newspaper typo for mammoth, the hybrid hero makes a rare appearance in the city, scaling the faces of buildings with “his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him.” Hold a flashlight to his eye, the poem concludes: 

                                                       … Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. 

Once I began looking for tears linked with bees, I found them everywhere. An ancient Egyptian papyrus traces the origin of bees to tears: “The god Re [the sun god also known as Ra] wept, and the tears from his eyes fell on the ground and turned into a bee. The bee made his honeycomb and busied himself with the flowers of every plant and so wax was made and also honey out of the tears of Re.” Gene Kritsky quotes this inscription in The Tears of Re (2015), about beekeeping in ancient Egypt.

In her book The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (1937), Hilda Ransome mentions a strikingly similar just-so story. According to Breton legend, “bees were created from the tears which Jesus shed on the Cross. Not one fell on the ground, but they all became winged creatures, which flew away with the Savior’s blessing to take sweetness to men.” O death, where is thy sting? 

Did peasants in Brittany somehow get wind of the Egyptian story about the tears of Re and convert it to the lachrymae Christi? Or is there a deeper connection between tears and bees underlying human existence? We now know, of course, that the web of life depends on bees, those crucial pollinators of farm and woodland. Many bee species are in danger of extinction, from a combination of pesticides, large-scale industrial farming, and climate change. The story of bees feeding on the Taiwanese woman’s tears, which went viral, could even be read as an allegory: only when humans repent of the devastation they have wrought will the endangered pollinators return. 

But poets seem to have known about the special significance of bees all along, and their connection to what Virgil called lacrimae rerum, “the tears of things.” Here, for example, is Andrew Marvell, in his beguiling poem “Eyes and Tears”:

I have through every garden been,
Amongst the red, the white, the green,
And yet, from all the flowers I saw,
No honey but these tears, could draw.

The poem riffs, in Marvell’s ingenious way, on a single idea stated in the opening couplet: “How wisely Nature did decree, / With the same eyes to weep and see!” The poet is like a bee, Marvell implies, but instead of drawing honey from flowers, he draws poems. Bees can seem like admirable models for humans in other ways: their industriousness, their modes of communication and community, their awareness of the changing seasons hurrying to their inevitable close. A similar identification seems to drive Emily Dickinson’s wonderful epigram:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee, 
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few. 

But why does Marvell weep as he walks through his flourishing garden? Is it the gather-ye-rosebuds-while-ye-may fear of death, which has haunted our gardens ever since Adam and Eve’s transgression in Eden? The imperative in Horace’s carpe diem is the Latin word for plucking flowers: pluck the day because you’re going to die. “The grave’s a fine and private place,” Marvell wrote in his own carpe diem poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” “But none, I think, do there embrace.”

A particularly lachrymose tale of bees is John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Telling the Bees,” based on the traditional belief that when a beekeeper dies, her bees need to be told the sad news or they will seek another home. In Whittier’s poem, a hired girl weeps for her dead mistress while “draping each hive with a shred of black.” 

Trembling, I listened: the summer sun
   Had the chill of snow; 
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
   Gone on the journey we all must go!

[…]

And the song she was singing ever since
   In my ear sounds on:— 
“Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
   Mistress Mary is dead and gone!”

In our culture, our cultures, bees seem deeply ingrained in the rituals of mourning, as in Whittier’s poem. In Greek mythology and many other traditions, African and Amerindian, bees shuttle between life here above and the underworld. The Delphic oracle was closely associated with bees. It seems fitting that the Taiwanese woman should have acquired her tear-drinking bees while visiting a relative’s grave. 

After the May 2017 terrorist attack in Manchester, Ariana Grande, whose fans had been targeted by the bombing, made a music video of her elegiac song “No Tears Left to Cry.” “Ain’t got no tears in my body,” she sings, “I ran out.” At the end of the video, she throws a ball to her dog, who disappears in the grass before reappearing as a bee in flight.

The bee in the video has been widely, and gratefully, interpreted as Grande’s tribute to one of the symbols of Manchester, the worker bee of the Industrial Revolution. But the connection of tears and bees, as we see, runs deeper than that, much deeper, and the thousands of mourners who got bee tattoos—in a charity appeal launched in the wake of the bombing—were tapping into a symbolism as old as ancient Egypt’s.