Nature 2022 February

The bee’s knees

Writing this on the coldest day so far of 2022, thoughts stray to what warmer days feel like. Most memorable are those days of the late winter with the surprise and perhaps even some joy from the benefit of the sun’s radiation on these Chiltern Hills.

One of the first of the few early blooms is the lesser celandine, which thrives in the shady places of damp meadows, woods and hedgerow verges. As first reported by the naturalist Gilbert White, it is one of the first flowers of the year which he recorded as appearing annually on or about 21 February, a date still relevant in lowland areas today. As William Wordsworth wrote in one of his three verses on the flower:

There is a flower, the Lesser celandine
That shrinks, like many more, from the cold and rain
And, the first moment that the sun may shine
Bright as the sun itself, ‘tis out again!

So besotted was Wordsworth with the flower that he let it be known that he wanted a carving included on his monument in Grasmere. Sadly, a mistake by the stonemason resulted in the flower carved being a greater celandine, an unrelated species. Dog violet is traditionally a woodland flower and can often be seen in early March where it breaks out in sunny or semi-shaded spots. Its relative, the sweet violet, is often a woodland companion and has a characteristically perfuse fragrance. Like the celandine, the violet attracted the interest of another poet, John Clare, who composed these words:

And just to say that spring was come,
The violet left its woodland home,
And, hermit-like, from storms and wind
Sought the best shelter it could find,
‘Neath long grass banks, with feeble flowers
Peeping faintly purple flowers.

A third wildflower worthy of mention is the dandelion, named from the French dent-de-lion in recognition of the liontooth incised leaves. The dandelion has gathered a host of colloquial and regional names either relating to its diuretic qualities, like Jack-piss-in-the-bed or its time-keeping properties, Old man’s clock. Shakespeare alluded to the dandelion in his play Cymbeline:

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers come to dust.

Where ‘chimney-sweepers’ is the Tudor name for the dandelion seed-head.

Another early flowering plant which Shakespeare was drawn to is the Primrose. The bard had noted that because of their early flowering, many flowers remained unfertilised – despite the attempt of bees, unlike those visited by bees which went on to produce their characteristic sticky seeds which were spread by insects and mammals, the unfertilised seemed to fade much faster. Cruelly, in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare in referring to old maids he pens the words:

…pale Primroses that Dye unmarried.

Related to the Primrose is the Cowslip, which also relies on the early bee for fertilisation. With a deep ‘throat’ formed by fused petals, only insects like the bee with a long tongue can reach the nectar at the base of the flower. Consequently, the pollen on the stamens at the top of the flower tube becomes attached to the mouthparts and base of the tongue and is transferred to the stigma to fertilise the ovule to produce the fruit. Again, Shakespeare’s apt refrain from The Tempest where he has Ariel proclaiming:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip’s bell I lie.

It’s a key turning point in the play, but for us it shows the bard had more than a passing acquaintance with the natural world and the relationship between bees and flowers.

These early-flowering wild plants and others of their ilk have secured a niche which has afforded them an evolutionary advantage, enabling them to set seed before the growing seasons of others have even started. This niche requires the involvement of another agent: insects that have the capability to pollinate the flowers. The association between flowering plants and pollinating insects is estimated to have evolved around 100 million years ago.

Many insects are plant pollinators, including butterflies and moths, beetles, wasps, flies, ants and bugs. However, probably the most important group of insects for late winter/early spring flowers are the bees. The name ‘bee’ is thought to derive from Old English ‘beo’ meaning ‘buzzer’. Of the 20,000 species across the world, about 270 species can be found in the British Isles. The vast majority of these are the so-called solitary bees. Together with two species of honeybees, which have been largely domesticated by beekeepers, there are about 24 species of bumblebees that collect pollen and nectar, including six so-called cuckoo-bumblebees that parasitise other bumblebee nests by laying eggs which are reared by the host bee colony.

For once, the naming of these provide the non-expert observer to identify at least some of the bees visiting flowers. Names include white-tailed, buff-tailed, red-tailed, and great yellow. A typical example and possibly the most common in this locality is the buff-tailed bumblebee which form, at their peak period of activity, colonies of up to 150 bees, comprising a queen, workers and drones.

Colonies do not store honey over winter, so on arrival of the cold weather the old queen, all drones and workers die. Only some fertilised adolescent queens remain alive, having buried themselves underground in a special state of hibernation called diapause. Once the temperatures begin to rise, maybe just for a day or two, the young queens emerge and rapidly feed up on nectar.

The new queens also search for a nest site, typically a rodent hole, a tree or even long grass, in which eggs are laid, starting a brand-new colony. The queen feeds its first brood of larvae with nectar and pollen, nurturing it to keep them warm and moist. The larvae pupate and two weeks later hatch into drones and workers. As the year progresses the drones, which are males, gather nectar and pollen to feed the hive of female worker bees and subsequent broods of larvae. The queen now remains in the hive nourished by nectar from the drones. In late summer the young queens are produced and leave the hive, together with the drones that seek out queens to mate with before dying. The fertilised queens feed up on nectar and pollen from lateflowering plants and the cycle is complete.

So, in early spring listen out for the first buzz of the bumblebee, visiting one of the early flowering plants to use its bee’s knees with their stiff bristles on which to attach the pollen. The bumblebee – a bee’s knees of the insect world.

Christopher William Gibson Brown BEM
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