Lyrical bees

In the Sticks: Loss of habitat and food threatens a one-time harbinger of SpringShirley Clerkin 


I sat on a bumblebee once. I’ve no idea which one of the twenty species had the misfortune to land on my office chair; but she met her demise that afternoon. I felt her pain.  As a result, I am honour-bound to home in on bumblebees for this article rather than the usual newspaper colonists, the honeybees.

Taxonomists have given bees the most fantastical Latin name Bombus and as gaeilge, Bombog. Adding to the bee lexicon is Dumbledore, an old English word for a bumblebee. More familiar though as the headmaster of Hogwarts from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, because she imagined him walking around “humming to himself a lot”.

Bumblebees and their Ways was published in 1934 by Sylvia Plath’s father Otto, an entomologist, who after his death when she was eight became the lens through which Sylvia felt the world. Known as the “king of the bees” as a boy in Germany, his scientific dissertation was made readable as a book by his wife Aurelia, although she got little recognition despite being the queen. In 1962, only a few months before she died, Sylvia wrote five bee poems through which she demonstrated a real empathy with bees. “The bees are flying. They taste the spring”.

Thirty of the 101 different species of bee in Ireland are now threatened with extinction

In 2011, Carol Ann Duffy published a collection of poems entitled simply “The Bees”. The poem Ariel attacks the pesticides and monoculture of intensive agriculture that threaten bees, transforming Thomas Arne’s light-hearted song to “Where the bee sucks, neonicotinoid insecticides in a cowslip’s bell lie”. She underscores the ecosystem service of pollination that bees including bumblebees provide, reminding us of their crucial role for food production. In Virgil’s Bees, she writes:

“where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise

in pear trees, plum trees; bees

are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them”.

And guard them we must. The National Biodiversity Data Centre’s report on the state of bees concludes “Some bumblebees that were once common are now beginning to decline in Ireland. Two of the most worrying are the red tailed bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius, which is jet black with a red tail, and the large carder bee, Bombus muscorum, which is a blond bumblebee”.  Duffy warns of life without nature’s pollinators, when they may need to be replaced by laborious hand pollination. Bees don’t just make honey, they are vital to life on earth, every year pollinating 90% of plants and crops and helping to generate an estimated $40bn value and over one-third of the food supply in many countries. Without immediate action to save bees, many of our favourite fruits, vegetables, and nuts could vanish from our shelves.

Last month the European Food Safety Authority gave the most compelling evidence yet that toxic chemicals called neonicotinoid pesticides could be responsible for  bee deaths. Italy has banned some uses of these bee-killing pesticides and has already seen it’s bee populations come back, but Bayer and Sygenta are lobbying to prevent a Euro-wide ban, for fear it would harm their global business. A petition signed by over 2.5 million people was recently delivered to the European Commission, which proposed a ban days later, only to have it turned down by member states in the Council. EU parliamentarians are stepping up their pressure and several other European governments have announced plans to push ahead with new legislation to ban the deadly pesticides on their own.

The classical work The Flight of the Bumblebee magically evokes their seemingly frenzied foraging behaviour; all that buzzing, bumbling and whizzing around. But bumblebees approach their visits to flowers very methodically from  the bottom of a plant spire, working their way up and leaving scent  as  messages on flowers visited, saving them time and energy. They also see five times faster than humans and have colour preferences, purple being their favourite when they are young, for example. Research shows that a bee that innately prefers the colour of flowers with the highest amounts of nectar will probably have a better chance of surviving its first few days in the world and then pass on that trait to its own offspring. Bumblebees give purpose to purple.

Bees are Ireland’s most important pollinators and provide vital ecological services to society. The contribution bees make to agriculture and the horticultural sector in Ireland is worth €50m each year. World without Bees by Allison Benjamin and Brian McCallum focuses on the role of honey bees and how in many countries we have industrialised them as slaves for mass pollination of large monocultures. Missing many micro-nutrients available from a varied diet in the wild, they become increasingly susceptible to colony collapse disorder, in other words the bees die. Other threats like loss of suitable habitat and climate change also are affecting the natural populations. Unfortunately, according to the Data Centre, 30 of the 101 different species of bee in Ireland are now threatened with extinction.

In The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, a young Nigerian asylum seeker in England assumed the name “Little Bee” as a way to survive, worried that her real name might reveal her identity and religion. She says “Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming…”.   I also wish the same for bees.

The National Biodiversity Data Centre has compiled a pocket-size book to help us identify different types of bumblebee. A complete amateur on the bee front, apart from the bee stings, I tried it out last Summer. It is a clever little swatch book, based on differentiating the bumblebees by the colour of their tail, white, ginger, blond or red. The next step to identification is to count their stripes. I felt very privileged having these close encounters with the bumblebees and their stripey pile. They are, after all, our “winged-saviours”.

It would be utterly depressing if Rimsky-Korsakov’s music and the bee poems became their eulogy; and the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s reference collection of bumblebees, suspended on little pins like tiny ponies spiked on carousels, their museum.