Tears of Ra

by Mendy Knott

Ancient Egyptians said honeybees were the “tears of Ra,”
direct messengers from the sun god to the people.

The keeper approaches with muffled steps
hives buzzing alive with wings beating,
the messengers of Ra flow in his rays upward
toward tulip poplar, locust flower, the dangling white earrings of sourwood.
Bees investigate the keeper’s netted face, crawl her pale and graceful hands
ungloved for the chance of a sting to soothe the arthritis in her joints.

Workers dance messages
this way…no…that way
to blackberry, strawberry, clover, dandelion—
zipping, zagging toward every Spring thing.
Inside the hive nurse bees move from cell to cell,
knead pollen into bread for brood,
push their dead from the doorstep.
Long live the queen.

Hive mind clicking like wings
in the bright flow of the sun, the glorious heat,
messages wrapping them in golden threads.
Never done in an hour, a day, a week, a summer
gathering, loading saddlebags like tiny donkeys
they haul, unload, haul
more, always more pollen, more nectar.
Kill the marauding wasp! Sting the skunk!
Cover the invading mouse in black tar propolis!
Long live the queen!

The hands of the keeper are steady.
Holding each crowded frame close to her face,
she studies formations while bees hover to inspect her.
She finds the queen, marks her with a yellow dot bright as the sun,
scrapes propolis, cuts the burr wax built askew in the bees’ enthusiasm
to make more, more, more brood, more comb, more food, more honey.
She slows them for a minute or two, smoker puffing,
confusing their messages long enough to care for them.
The keeper never falters, never quickens in her still life with bees.

All is honey and sun
until November stops them cold.
They tighten to a pulsing orb,
corona around their hidden sun, the queen,
warming her with a battalion of wings
throughout winter, never quite still,
slowed but active verbs delivering the message:
Long live the queen.

There is nothing so still as a hive whose life has left it.
The keeper listens for the hum, the flow of life up and out and back again.
No buzz of conversation greets her, their message silenced,
never to be whispered to a flower.
All is quiet.
The queen is dead.
The keeper offers back the tears of Ra.
Long live the queen.

Mendy Knott’s most recent publications include a book of poetry—A Little Lazarus (Half Acre Press), a cookbook titled Across the Ark-La-Tex (2Poets Press), and a memoir piece in the anthology Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South and Women Behaving Badly, edited by Lee Gutkind and Beth Ann Fennelly (In Fact Books). Mendy lives in Busick, North Carolina, near Mount Mitchell.

About Tears of Ra—This poem was an assignment on types of movement in a poem. It reflects a decade of being married to a beekeeper and observing both joy and sorrow in the hard work of keeping bees.