The Bees and the Flies

(notes edited by John McGivering and Daniel Hadas)


This poem following “The Mother Hive” was collected in Actions and Reactions (1909), and in the later verse collected editions. The story, without the poem, had already been published in Colliers Weeky and The Windsor Magazine.

See Chapter 14 of The Book of Judges in the Old Testament where Samson kills a lion whose body is then occupied by a swarm of bees that produces honey. The famous verse 14: Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness, with a picture of the lion, is still quoted on every tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup. This version of the legend, however, goes horribly wrong!

Kipling was an enthusiastic beekeeper.  See also “The Vortex”


Classical background

Daniel Hadas explains:

the Bugonia an ancient ritual involving bees, is described in Virgil’s Georgics 4. The process itself is described at 4.281-314 and again at 4.538-58.  Here’s Dryden’s translation of 4.538-58  The numbers in Dryden’s translation are 780-807).

“Select four Brawny Bulls for Sacrifice,
Which on Lycaeus graze, without a Guide;
Add four fair Heifars yet in Yoke untry’d:
For these, four Altars in their Temple rear,
And then adore the Woodland Pow’rs with Pray’r.
From the slain Victims pour the streaming Blood,
And leave their Bodies in the shady Wood:
Nine Mornings thence, Lethean Poppy bring,
T’ appease the Manes of the Poets King:
And to propitiate his offended Bride,
A fatted Calf, and a black Ewe provide:
This finish’d, to the former Woods repair”.
His Mother’s Precepts he performs with care;
The Temple visits, and adores with Pray’r.

Four Altars raises, from his Herd he culls,
For Slaughter, four the fairest of his Bulls;
Four Heifars from his Female Store he took,
All fair, and all unknowing of the Yoke.
Nine Mornings thence, with Sacrifice and Pray’rs,
The Pow’rs aton’d, he to the Grove repairs.
Behold a Prodigy! for from within
The broken Bowels, and the bloated Skin,
A buzzing noise of Bees their Ears alarms,
Straight issue through the Sides assembling Swarms:
Dark as a Cloud they make a wheeling Flight,
Then on a neighb’ring Tree, descending, light:
Like a large Cluster of black Grapes they show,
And make a large dependance from the Bough.

The  bugonia doesn’t actually work in the real world, which of course is part of what Kipling is telling us.[D.H.

A critical comment

Ann Weygandt (pp. 66/7) writes of this poem:

It is a fable—it was first published as an epilogue to another fable, “The Mother Hive” —-and most fitly employs the metre and tone of Gay’s “The Butterfly and the Snail” and “The Turkey and the Ant.” Nowhere has Kipling more completely caught the spirit of his model than here. The classical allusions; the words “egregious” and “disposed”; the compression in the phrase “Nor waited long” and the caesura that occurs after it; the proneness to generalization that would make an author say “profit” for “honey” when the more specific term would scan properly and even alliterate—all are typical of the Augustan age in general and Gay in particular. No analysis of the similarities between “The Bees and the Flies” and its prototypes can convey an adequate impression of Kipling’s skill; we must read it against its background to appreciate what he has done.

Notes on the Text

[Line 1]

Augustan Age: Latin literature written during the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 B.C.-14A.D.) by great writers including Ovid, Virgil, Livy, and Horace. The English ‘Augustan Age’ is explained in Notes to “The Propagation of Knowledge” (Debits and Credits, page 273, line 3 and The Complete Stalky & Co.)

[Line 2]

Virgil: Publius Virgilius Maro (B.C. 70-17), perhaps the greatest poet of ancient Rome, though Kipling would have made a strong case for Horace.

[Line 4]

Proteus: the herdsman of Neptune, god of the sea, who tended his flocks of seals.
Cyrene’s son: Aristaeus – according to Greek legend, the son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene, farmer and bee-keeper.

[Lines 4-8]

From Proteus: This isn’t quite accurate to Virgil. Proteus (Georgics 4.453-527) tells Aristaeus that his bees have died because he has angered the nymphs, companions of Eurydice, by causing the latter to be bitten by a snake when running away from him. But Proteus does not tell Aristaeus how to do the Bugonia. Aristaeus’ mother, the nymph Cyrene, tells him that at 4.538-58. The “slaughtered bull” is both a sacrifice to appease Orpheus Eurydice, and the source of new bees. [D.H.]

[Line 7] more briefly:  Proteus narrates the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but – see above – doesn’t get around to telling how Aristaeus can revive his bees. The whole second half of book 4 of the Georgics is mostly a long – and extremely beautiful – digression, where bees, the ostensible subject of the whole of book 4, largely disappear from sight. So, as a bee-keeping text, it’s anything but brief, and Kipling is joking about that. [D.H.]

[Line 9]

egregious rustic: ‘notable’ or ‘outstanding’, but in a somewhat derogatory way, so, in this context, a stupid countryman.

[Line 15]

the God of Day:  his expression for the sun as found in Shakespeare, Hamlet act 1, scene 1, l.153; Burns, ‘The Whistle‘, final stanza’, and (as some googling will tell you) frequently elsewhere. But it is not, to my knowledge, used in classical Latin or Greek. [D.H.]

[Line 17]

evil and good alike:  see Matthew 5.45: T[D.H.]

hat ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good.

[Lines 24-5]

sweet music: It was believed that the noise made by beating on such utensils encouraged a swarm of bees to settle.

See Georgics 4.64-66: : Dryden 88-91; Dryden’s translation [D.H.]

And mix with tinkling Brass, the Cymbals droning Sound.
Streight to their ancient Cells, recall’d from Air,
The reconcil’d Deserters will repair.

[Lines 36-9]

while above … twice corrupt:  These lines are about maggots.  [D.H.]


©John McGivering Daniel Hadas 2022  All rights reserved