I was in England last week and saw some of the usual sights: Stonehenge, the Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral, King’s College along the river Cam, JRR Tolkien’s grave. To me, these represent timelessness. Tolkien, sleeping in eternity. The stones of Stonehenge, eroding forever. Even our creations – Salisbury’s statement of democracy; Cambridge’s seven hundred years of learning – are perhaps no less enduring. And everywhere I went, I saw bees.
Bees are nearly ubiquitous, yet so ephemeral. Their time is brief. At first blush, they don’t have the agelessness of rocks and institutions. Bees come and go. The bumblebees which I saw flittering between clovers at Stonehenge build a summer nest of a hundred workers, then, in late autumn, most of the bees abruptly die.
One (or a few) mated queens find solitary wintering sites, wait for spring, then start anew. I want to believe that at least a few queen bumblebees shelter each winter alongside a Stonehenge rock where the igneous doleritic bluestone meets the soil. A bees’ time is brief – a few months – but starting anew each spring has been repeated for millions of years. On the Salisbury Plain, bees have been drawing nectar and raising brood almost forever.
And yet, we know that nothing lasts forever. Although bees may have brooded a hundred million summers (as some scientists believe), they and their environment have changed dramatically. Worshipers erected rocks at Stonehenge almost 5,000 years ago. Before that, ice covered much of the northern hemisphere and bees were forced south, following the receding flowers. Much further back in time, North America and Europe were attached and the Caledonian mountain range stretched from Scotland to Alabama. Eventually the continents parted (in a final Pangean breakup, about 60 million years ago) and still later, our favoured honey bees, relative late-comers, arose in the Middle East. (This is why bumblebees are found in the Americas and Europe while honey bees, speciated after the Atlantic formed, were isolated from America. The continents had separated before honey bees arose. The American continents didn’t have any honey bees until humans carried them as livestock in the 16th century, but earlier bee species had spread before the continents parted.)
Later in England, at JRR Tolkien’s cemetery, I found an entirely different hymenoptera working a yellow rose blossoming atop the great writer. Some sort of wasp, I suppose. Or perhaps one of the 23,249 species of bee which I don’t recognize. Such creatures, it seems, are everywhere.
Tolkien, whose grave is across the road from an Oxford guesthouse we slept in last week, will be dead forever. Perhaps death is the thing that endures. Yet, even in death the body is restless and changing. Tolkien signed a 50-year contract (costing $2,000) to keep his cemetery plot for half a century. Unless someone renews that contract – made between the city of Oxford, the Wolvercote Cemetery, and Professor Tolkien – his spot will be sold to someone newly dead. It is likely that the great writer’s heirs will renew the agreement and Tolkien will remain at peace for at least another 50 years. Else, like the eroding stones at Stonehenge, Tolkien himself will be moved to other soil, allowing even more roses to blossom.
It all has to do with time. For the humans who drafted the documents at the Wolvercote Cemetery, fifty years is long enough for most people to be remembered. And then forgotten – unless one is perhaps JRR Tolkien.