Posted in Bees, Nature, Nonfiction, Writing

The Foreign Language of Color

photo by Klaus Schmitt, for the Floral Reflectance Database, Univ. of London
photo by Klaus Schmitt, for the Floral Reflectance Database, Univ. of London

Every color I see is really a color rejected. Elephants are gray because gray is the color of the wavelengths of light reflected from the surface of their skins. Blue jays are blue and daffodils are yellow for the same reason. It’s possible for our eyes to gorge on a thousand or more different color combinations – tints of turquoise, hues of hyacinth, shades of sapphire. For proof, simply go to the nearest paint store.

But the colors I see are not the colors seen by elephants or by snakes or by insects or by cats and dogs. Many scientists after many experiments believe that cats and dogs do not see colors well, but that birds do, and that the colors of their feathers have a lot to do with either camouflage or sexy come-ons. I believe the scientists are right. Otherwise we would endure male dogs with tails like peacocks and female cats with hind ends as red and swollen as baboons.

The colors I see, and the subtle natural variations of them, were of considerable advantage to my ancestors, foraging primates swinging down from the trees into the lion-colored grass. Colors indicated ripe fruit; motion and patterns the difference between zebras and leopards.

To honeybees, the world as I see it moves like molasses. Each eye of the honeybee contains nearly 7000 lenses, 7000 pinpoint openings for light, giving it composite images shaped somewhat like snow globes. Homing in on flowers at 300 images per second, (vs. 60 for humans) bees zoom about in fast-forward, so they can make all those in-flight adjustments to the slightest change of wind, grasp all those swollen bodies of pollen.

Like us, honeybees have three photoreceptors in their eyes. Where we see blue, green, and red, bees perceive blue, green and ultraviolet, combined into colors entirely different from those we see. Ultraviolet patterns on flowers are invisible to us, but to bees those patterns announce seductive landing zones.

It’s been long speculated that creatures with compound eyes see far less efficiently than we do. But seeing is in the eye of the beholder, in the language of colors available to read. Where I might not even notice a certain flower a besotted bee ogles an orgy of ultraviolet ravishment, an irresistible, come-hither promise of pollen and nectar.

I want the language of bees in my head, to see the world differently when I write. I want my words to unfold like time-lapsed flowers, petal pushing against petal, blooming in foreign color combinations, perennial, glorious, sexy, irresistible. I want you to stick your nose inside my flowers, waggling and buzzing. I want you to come away pollinated.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

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