Bees & Honey: Translating Sappho

I want neither the sweetness of honey

nor the sting of bees

a memory of a Sappho fragment

This is how I remember Sappho’s lyric, though I can’t say where I found this translation. I think maybe in a friend’s email sign off, years ago? I remember feeling stricken by the sentiment: I felt so sad for this speaker who has walled herself in. What hurt her so badly that she has turned away from pleasure in order to protect herself from pain? Why advocate to play it safe in love?


I’ve been wanting to keep bees for over a decade. About five years ago, I purchased all the necessary equipment: a Langstroth hive, veil, and various other tools. I had read several manuals and joined many Facebook groups; I watched the videos and noted every piece of contradictory advice. All that I lacked was a colony. My options were to mail-order a queen, or hope to catch a swarm. Catching a swarm seemed easy enough at first: just look out for the pleas on Facebook for folks that needed one removed, sweep them into a box, and let them loose into your previously set-up hive. But alas, I drive a hatchback, and remembering that one episode of Arrested Development gave me pause. I decided to rub some lemongrass oil--an attractive smell to them--on my hive and see what could happen.


Oddly enough, long past swarm season this year, some bees moved in. I’d been dating my partner seriously for only a month or so when he found them, ecstatic, because he knew how happy I’d be. The bees moved in! I was a beekeeper! But most important to me, in that moment, was that they’d done so on their own. They chose me. They chose my yard. It was a symbol, a metaphor: things were growing and budding and building toward sweetness. There wasn’t even any chance for sting, as they went ahead and made themselves at home without me having to capture or transport them.

No droning bee,

nor even the bearer of honey

for me!

translated by Michael R. Burch

This is another translation of Sappho’s honey/string fragment. I’ve found many translations of this fragment, but none how I remember it.This translation by Burch feels almost lighthearted, comical. The longing and desire is omitted. Thanks but no thanks, it seems to say.


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship of metaphor to desire. I’ve been surprised by what I’ve found. Even Ann Carson’s translation in If Not, Winter is very different from my remembered lyric:

neither for me honey nor the bee

translated by Ann Carson

Carson’s version is much more concise; much less illustrative. Neither “honey” or “bee” are modified, and we readers are left to make our own connotations. Well, I now had bees. I was hoping for honey.

I couldn’t help but metaphorically link this new hive to my new relationship. It was off to a great start, and this unexpected bee move-in made me believe even nature was on my side: I was home. My home was a habitable place; not only did my blood orange tree flower for the first time but it attracted bees and they chose me, my yard, as home. I had an ecosystem! It was self-sustaining. I just had to stand back and watch it thrive.

I never did check in on the hive after two weeks, as the guidebooks say I should have. I had spring business and summer travel. Almost two months went by before I noticed a drop in the activity around the hive entrance. I should have checked on them immediately, but I was afraid of what I might find, now having to face a risk for the first time. When I finally prepared myself to peek inside, it was empty. The bees were gone; two frames had massive amounts of comb built in, each hexagon vacant. There was neither honey nor the honey bee.

I immediately panicked, and not just because their abscondence meant they probably wouldn’t survive the summer, as it was much too late to build up the honey stores necessary to make it through winter, but because I thought for sure my relationship was over. I had so closely linked the two in my head. Was this my fault? Did I not try hard enough? Was I hoping for all the reward without the risk, the sweetness without the sting? Was my relationship doomed?

Neither honey nor bee for me.

translated by H. T. Wharton

Honestly, I never hesitated to be around the bees. I never feared being stung. I’m not allergic; I react more harshly to mosquitos than bee stings. I knew it was a possibility, even necessary for harvesting honey. Unlike Sappho, I wanted both. But now I have neither, and I am struggling to unlink the bees from my boyfriend.

It’s a human thing, I guess, this endless quest for meaning. Why can’t the bees just be bees—why must they take on metaphorical value? Maybe I put too much pressure on them, and they couldn’t handle it. I felt a profound sense of loss when they left.

It is clear now:

Neither honey nor

the honey bee is

to be mine again.

translated by Mary Barnard

Barnard’s translation highlights the sense of melancholy. While other translations make the scene feel temporary, this version echoes with a severe, sincere loss. The speaker finds herself alone, forever. There is desire in this, too.

A line in Linda Hogan’s novel Power says that “[s]tories are for people what water is for plants.” We drink them; they sustain us. Except this time, the story I wrote in my head dictated my feelings, creating an anxiety that hovered over until I finally investigated the empty frames. Because of my years of bee training, I immediately recognized the signs of a wax moth infestation. Why hadn’t I just checked sooner, been more careful about maintenance?

“Wax moths keep us from being lazy,” I’ve since discovered on the internet, “Conversely, they make us pay dearly for procrastination, they wake us up from lethargy and reinforce our resolve.” Ultimately, I’m considering this a lesson not in risk but in effort. A relationship is more than a metaphor. The good things take work. I want it all.

Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at