The sorry plight of the bumblebee
Awelcome distraction from the Coronavirus crisis came this week from a most unlikely source. Over the wall at the back of my Bangkok abode there is a drainage ditch which also hosts a couple of trees providing welcome shade for the rear of the house. On Thursday my wife summoned me to the back of the house. She pointed at one of the trees in animated fashion — all I could see was leaves.
Rahng peung (bee nest), she exclaimed and sure enough, there was a large bee nest hanging from one of the upper branches.
I asked what we should do and her advice was “leave it alone” which sounded like a good idea. According to Thai folklore it brings good luck and we could certainly do with a bit of that at the moment.
Bees are wonderful insects, unless you happen to be stung by one of course. They are certainly not to be messed with. Last month a street in Pasadena, California was shut down after a swarm of 40,000 bees that had been nesting in the eaves of a hotel went on the loose.
There have been TV programmes on the alarming fall in the world bee population, which through pollination play a vital role in the food chain.
In The Life of a Bee, Maurice Maeterlinck observes “If bees were to disappear from the face of the earth, man would only have four years to live”. Not cheerful news.
Bumblebees are said to be particularly badly affected. It is sad that such a noble insect that inspired Nikalai Rimsky-Korsakov to compose the extraordinary orchestral piece, Flight of the Bumblebee, should be threatened. The music evokes a wonderful image of bees in flight.
Now, what’s that loud buzzing noise in the kitchen?
Dumbledore and Babbitty
The bumblebee has played quite a role in British culture, especially literature. Dedicated Harry Potter fans are no doubt aware that Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, is named after the 18th century word for bumblebee.
Author JK Rowling explained that the character loved music and she imagined him walking around Hogwarts humming like a bee.
Then there is author Beatrix Potter (no relation to Harry) who created the Babbitty Bumble character in her Tales of Mrs Tittlemouse. Babbitty is one of several bumblebees that inhabit the mouse’s home. The bee is not very talkative, but on its first meeting with the mouse comes out with “Zizz, Wizz, Wizzz!” which sounds a bit like Crutch after consuming too much amber liquid.
When I was a kid there was an English comedian called Arthur Askey. He was only five foot two (1.58m) and one of his popular acts was performing the novelty number, The Bee Song. Arthur would run around the stage flapping his arms and making buzzing noises, pretending he was a bee. It is a jolly little ditty and you might enjoy the first few lines:
“Oh what a wonderful thing to be/A healthy grown-up busy busy bee/Whiling away the passing hours/Pinching all the pollen from the cauliflowers”.
There’s another bee song of an entirely different nature entitled I’m a King Bee made famous by the Rolling Stones, in which Mick Jagger informs us that he “can buzz all night long”, something we will not dispute. Released in 1964, it is an earthy song with the Stones at their bluesy best. In fact it’s not that different to the 1957 original version by blues musician Slim Harpo. To his credit, Jagger once commented, “What’s the point of listening to us doing I’m a King Bee when you can hear Slim Harpo do it?” Alas, Sting never got round to recording it.
We have to thank the bees for the wonderful expression the ‘‘bee’s knees”, meaning something that is the very best or excellent. Folklore suggests it may originate from when a bee moves from flower to flower the nectar sticks to its legs and that’s where the good stuff is. I must admit to not being totally convinced by that explanation. For a start bees don’t have knees, but they do have leg joints. However “the bee’s leg joints’’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
There is also a “bee’s knees” drink, a prohibition-era cocktail of gin, honey and lemon[a1] , but it did not always live up to its name. The honey was used to disguise the taste of the often low-quality home-made gin, known as “bathtub gin” because that’s where it was stored before it got in the bottle. Bees were also the inspiration for the “beehive” hairstyle made popular by the terrific group The Ronettes and later adopted by Amy Winehouse. Cartoon wife Marge Simpson boasts a blue beehive.
Inevitably there have been many horror films featuring wayward bees, all of them equally awful. Perhaps the most famous was The Swarm made in 1979 about killer bees invading Texas. Despite an allstar cast, including Michael Caine, the film was a massive flop. The New York Times called it “The surprise comedy hit of the season.” It was not helped by clunky dialogue, including a general revealing his cunning tactics to wipe out the bees: “The battle plan is to get ‘em all in one area and then zap ‘em.” If only we could do that with the virus.