If Bees Are Few: A Hive of Bee Poems edited by James Lenfestey, University of Minnesota Press


If Bees Are Few is an anthology spanning 2,500 years "from Sappho to Sherman Alexie," as its cover copy suggests. Edited by James Lenfestey, it is as eclectic in its selection as it is vast in its time frame. The book takes its title from Emily Dickinson, who was herself fascinated with bees, and comes as a poignant reminder that bee populations are dwindling, hives are collapsing, and the effects may be devastating if bees indeed become few.

In the first poem, Sherman Alexie candidly lays out the dangerous consequence from the eyes of the beekeeper: "The bees are gone. / We need new bees / Or we are fucked." Bees have captivated the popular imagination in recent years, thanks to a plethora of documentaries and the work of grassroots organizations like the Honeybee Conservancy. Following a decade’s sharp decline in bee populations— nearly a third of all bee colonies in the United States—this book is a call to bring the bee into the literary world and into our broader consciousness. As Lenfestey notes in the introduction, "poets do what we can, in our reverie, our observation, our listening, our metaphors, our occasional beekeeping, our outrage, our grief, to keep the sweetness and sting of these poetic companions alive."

This flexibility and malleability of the image of bees lends itself well to the anthology’s range. As Bill McKibben writes in the foreword, bees are a metaphor "for so many things." The book brings awareness, but it does so with range and depth. The variety of poets mirrors our interactions with bees as well as the roles they play in our lives. Some poems are principally about bees, such as Thomas R. Smith’s, "The Queen in Winter," a solemn ode to the bumblebee queen’s lonely journey through the winter months. But an equal number of poems see bees as simply part of the scenery, the everyday workings of life, an inseparable, if not particularly visible, part of our houses, our gardens, the words we write, and, as Rumi points out, even to our own bodies:

We are bees,
and our body is a honeycomb.
We made
the body, cell by cell we made it.

These poems tackle the complexity of the human-bee relationship, from our enjoyment of the sweet aroma of amber-hued honey to possible rage after encountering the unlucky end of a bee and its sting, as does Diane Lockward:

And tomorrow may you rest on my table
as I peruse the paper. May you shake
beneath the scarred face of a serial killer.
May you be crushed by the morning news.

The buzzing never stops, as poets from Rumi to Emerson and Issa to Whitman deliver their odes and rants in this anthology, which is marked to donate a portion of the proceeds from sales to the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, in hopes of heading off the regret Lucille Clifton captures in "earth":

what was called tree
it bore varicolored
leaves children bees
all this used to be a
place once all this
was a nice place once