We are flirting with the edge of frost. The air chills noticeably as soon as the sun dips low behind the spindly ten-leaf trees. Perhaps the dew has already frozen on our patch of garden, presenting us with a transient coverlet of lace as harbinger of what’s to come. And, still, some bees are flying. A last few honeybees fly in and out of the brilliant whiskered mouths of the last nasturtium caves. Huge ground bees stand stunned on aster centers like locomotives rolling to a stop halfway across a prairie.

It would be foolish to anthropomorphize bees. (Anthropomorphism being the act of believing that one’s dog really does feel fashionable in the cardigan that matches his owner’s holiday outfit.) In his book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, anthrozoologist Hal Herzog describes the attitude of two arachnid research colleagues. One felt that spiders were little more than tiny living robots, reacting in the narrow range of ways they had been programmed by nature and evolution. The other had been discovered crouching in the middle of an elaborate web of flexible tubing he had constructed in his office, trying to feel what spiders feel. (I’d rather party with the second researcher, though I would hesitate to marry him.) Between those two approaches there is middle ground — living creatures, no matter how simple their neural ganglia, are not machines. But their minds, if that’s an appropriate word to use, are not translateable to me. Researchers are just beginning to study (and disagree about) the ability of a wide range of creatures to feel pain, let alone more subtle emotions like joy and fear and purpose. So, I am forced to accept that my communion with insects, no matter how focused and well-meant, is a matter of saying “flower” to a creature who replies “xchditn.”

However, that doesn’t prevent me from anthropometaphorizing insects. These bees are bound to die. As am I. But these tiny engines of life, slowing in the cold, continue to perform the tasks that were their life’s work through their warmer days. I have no way of knowing whether the last drops of nectar are sweet to the bee that ends her life sipping them, but I am stirred by the sight of her relentless quest. Nothing seems as beautiful as the last flowers of fall and no insight more important to me than that we are alive every moment until the moment we are not.

– Sharron Cohen


  1. BarbM says:

    Sharron, you have me “anthropometaphorizing” about insects and their (gulp!) sense of beauty.

    Darwin mentions not only “survival of the fittest” but also survival of the most gorgeous — which he calls sexual selection.

    Is a spectacularly pigmented butterfly more gorgeous to another butterfly than his duller but better camouflaged rival? Can these preferences move whole species toward more beautiful (even by our standards), more decorated, even more impractical forms?

    A most strange thing: sometimes when an insect or bird or animal chooses what is most gorgeous we agree wholeheartedly with their assessment. We would love to clothe ourselves in iridescent peacock plumage or perfume our patios with the scent of jasmine yet these arose to appeal to pea hens and tropical nocturnal insects, not to us.

    So there seems to be at least some overlap or agreement among species on what constitutes drop-dead gorgeousness. Flowering plants co-evolved with bees whom they sought to attract and bribe with their fragrances, nectar and colors, but they please us as much as they please the bees: extravagant fragrances and exuberant colors extending far beyond everyday baseline practicality.

    Sometimes we can even tell when another species really likes our stuff. I once lived next door to a canary who would sing his heart out whenever Debussy’s “First Arabesque” was played. He also liked Chopin, but Mozart, alas, left him silent.

    We think a sense of beauty is one of the higher attributes of human consciousness, but maybe it is encoded way down deep in the structure of our neurons, more primitive than we think.

    Barbara McKenzie

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.