16 December 2010

a few words on the humble-bee...

An interesting article in today's Guardian has me thinking about bees.  Boris Johnson, London's charismatic Mayor, is launching a scheme to encourage the keeping of bees in London.  This would seem, on the face of it, a good idea, but it's a plan that's meeting with considerable opposition from members of the London Beekeeper's Association who are concerned about a potential glut of inexperienced beekeepers outnumbering the experienced keepers whose ability to mentor newcomers will be overtaxed.  Today, the London Bee Summit 2010 is being held to discuss what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder, that mysterious disappearance of honeybees worldwide.  

In this article, Johnson refers to the "humble bee", a lovely term which, if you're curious about etymology, is of interest as the word humble-bee or any of its variant spellings, (humbyllbee is one of the more beautiful), was the standard usage by the 16th century. Shakespeare mentions one in Troilus and Cressida, (Full merrily the humble-bee doth sing...).  The OED suggests that the word may be of Old English/Anglo Saxon origin.  Another Guardian article from August of this year attributes the etymological disappearance of the humble-bee to its replacement by the more familiar term, bumblebee, although a quick glance at the OED suggests that this word was in use in the 16th century as well.  In the late 18th century, dumbledore, a name well known to fans of Harry Potter, was a term for the humble-bee.  I am eager to learn the origin of this word.

A rather touching English funeral custom known as "telling the bees" required that bees be informed of the death of a household member and appeased with cake from the funeral ceremony lest they flee the hive or die.  Upon timely delivery of the tragic news, the bees, considered important members of the family, would hum, signalling their consent to remain in their hives onto which a  black crepe would then be placed.   A notation from the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore gives a description of the ceremony.  Three taps would be made on the hives with a house key and the chosen informer, often a child,  would repeat, "Bees, bees, bees, your master is dead and you must work for ______", forewarning the bees that they would have a new owner.
There was a similar custom for announcing weddings as the bees expected to be apprised of all household goings-on.  Other folkloric traditions hold that bees are highly sensitive and easily upset by domestic turmoil and bad language.  Those of a quarrelsome disposition will never be able to keep bees.  

Burly dozing humblebee!
Where thou art is clime for me.
Let them sail for Porto Rique,
Far-off heats through seas to seek,
I will follow thee alone,
Thou animated torrid zone!
Zig-zag steerer, desert-cheerer,
Let me chase thy waving lines,
Keep me nearer, me thy hearer,
Singing over shrubs and vines.

Insect lover of the sun,
Joy of thy dominion!
Sailor of the atmosphere,
Swimmer through the waves of air,
Voyager of light and noon,
Epicurean of June,
Wait I prithee, till I come
Within ear-shot of thy hum,—
All without is martyrdom.

When the south wind, in May days,
With a net of shining haze,
Silvers the horizon wall,
And, with softness touching all,
Tints the human countenance
With a color of romance,
And, infusing subtle heats,
Turns the sod to violets,
Thou in sunny solitudes,
Rover of the underwoods,
The green silence dost displace,
With thy mellow breezy bass.

Hot midsummer's petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure.

Aught unsavory or unclean,
Hath my insect never seen,
But violets and bilberry bells,
Maple sap and daffodels,
Grass with green flag half-mast high,
Succory to match the sky,
Columbine with horn of honey,
Scented fern, and agrimony,
Clover, catch fly, adders-tongue,
And brier-roses dwelt among;
All beside was unknown waste,
All was picture as he passed.

Wiser far than human seer,
Yellow-breeched philosopher!
Seeing only what is fair,
Sipping only what is sweet,
Thou dost mock at fate and care,
Leave the chaff and take the wheat,
When the fierce north-western blast
Cools sea and land so far and fast,
Thou already slumberest deep,—
Woe and want thou canst out-sleep,—
Want and woe which torture us,
Thy sleep makes ridiculous. 

The Humble-Bee, Ralph Waldo Emerson

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