Stephen Humphrey’s Odes to Solitary Bees prelude the last Movie in August

Leafcutter Closeup

Why Write Odes to Bees?

I remember how my mind was first turned sideways when I heard about solitary bees.

Bees were supposed to live in gigantic highly sociable groups, making hexagons with wax from their bodies, sharing a language that looked like hula dancing and sounded like joy buzzers. They made honey and talked for hours – an army of sisters, called workers, who built, nursed and foraged for their always-pregnant mother, called the queen.

How would solitary bees ever fit this picture?

They don’t. They live in another picture entirely.

The ten-odd species of honeybees in the world live more or less like I’ve just described. But most of the other 20,000 or so species of bee live their lives alone, not bothering themselves with conversation or hoarding flower nectar as honey. They are content to live in tiny dark tunnels or holes in the ground, with only themselves for company.

A solitary bee fashions humble structures from mud, leaves, plant resin or whatever materials that species evolved a preference for. She builds these thimble-shaped constructions one after another, laying an egg in each one, atop a ball of pollen lovingly gathered from flowers. The business of the solitary bee is primarily motherhood. Think of a queen bee without all the workers.

And yes, the business of solitary bees is also flowers, something they definitely have in common with honeybees, bumblebees and their other social cousins. When solitary bees forage for pollen and nectar from flowers, they spread pollen, which is how flowers reproduce. Unlike honeybees, which come from Europe and Asia, solitary bees around North America are native to this place, and have close relationships with native flowering plants. Our ecosystems depend on them.

In my quest to know more about bees, I found myself pointing my camera’s lens at human-made structures designed to attract solitary bees. Composer and artist Sarah Peebles, and her various collaborators put together these lovely cabinet-like solitary bee booths with nice, dry, bee-friendly tunnels, but also Plexiglas walls and special microphones so voyeurs like me could watch and listen to them.

I spent hours making video of leaftcutter bees, mason bees, masked bees and even solitary wasps that collect mud and hunt spiders, getting to know creatures on sight that most people don’t recognize as bees.

After making several videos Sarah challenged me to write poems about these remarkable but largely unknown creatures. I wrote short, simple poems, which seemed like the right thing to describe solitary bee-ness.

I also gave the bees names. I named a flitty leafcutter Gracie, a no-nonsense mason bee Mary-Jane and decided a preening, emerald-coloured male sweat bee should be called Dexter Greenbody.

I couldn’t help naming them. I’m not pretending they’re people. Solitary bees live dignified and necessary lives which have nothing to do with humans. But, for me, naming means I know these creatures as individuals. It means I’m trying to avoid the distorted understandings that come with referring to every nonhuman beastie as ‘it’.

I did do my best, I hope, to write about what actually went on in the lives of solitary bees. I tried very hard to know my characters. I watched them for hours.

I’ve written ten of these five-line odes so far. Each one goes with a video.

You can find some of them online, posted on the website for Sarah’s bee art project, Resonating Bodies.

You can hear all ten, with videos, this Thursday, in a short presentation before the documentary Wild Thing. Come learn about the little wild things first.

Stephen Humphrey



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