Thursday, September 24, 2009



Wee hoverin’, fleein’ ferlie fello’,
Wi’ yer stripes o’ black and yello’
Yer ever sae bonnie, so ye ur,
Like a spring lamb - only smaller and withoot the fur,
But see if ye ever sting me oan the bum again,
Ah’m gonnae jump on yer heid so Ah um.

Stuart McLean (From No’ Rabbie Burns)

             I have a question for all you linguists out there:  is there any connection between the word “bumble”, meaning  to blunder, and the word “bumblebee”?  I have not found any; yet it seems that the reputation of the poor bumblebee has been tarnished by the mythology that it  is a bungler.  There is of course the famous and spurious accusation that the bumblebee is without the aerodynamic ability to fly and so he mysteriously bumbles along:  

Imperfect by design
Ungainly sporadic jerks define gawky movements
Flawed in nearly every way
A veritable outcast 
Among hive-minded conformity[1]

Yet “blissfully ignorant of the overwhelming odds”, the bumblebee flies on. 

         I hasten to the defense of this small, bright and busy creature that has found its way into our poetry, literature, art and music.  She is most remarkable.  I say “she” for a reason - the females raise the young, do the work and defend the colony, while  the males do no work, and, should they win the lottery, they get to mate with a virgin queen.  (an arrangement considered by some to be on all counts better than we humans have).  

         We need the bumblebee.  Our best-known pollinator, the honey bee, is plagued with disease and collapse of its colonies.  The bumblebee is a formidable pollinator.  It can fly at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and has  been known to fly at 32 degrees, temperatures lower than those at which the honey bee can fly.  They have longer tongues than honey bees and can pollinate flowers with long, narrow corollas, such as clover, of which bumblebees are the best pollinator.   Their hairy bodies can easily pick up and transfer pollen.  Perhaps most significantly, they can vibrate their flight muscles to create the extraordinary wing beat of around 200 beats per second.  They can uncouple the flight muscles from the wings and use the vibration to warm their bodies and for keeping brood warm, and, of great importance, to perform “buzz pollination”.  

         The anther, the pollen-bearing organ, of the modern tomato blossom is so shaped that the pollen is not easily released without outside help, being only able to release pollen when vibrated at about 400 hz.  The bumblebee seizes the anther  and vibrates its flight muscles, releasing pollen grains that otherwise would have remained in the anther.  As a result, bumblebees are raised commercially to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes.  Now, nearly every European tomato owes its existence to the bumblebee.  They are also the chief pollinators of red clover, alfalfa, field beans, peas, runner beans, tomatoes, and, in some areas, cotton, raspberries, apple, plum blossom, oilseed rape, sunflowers, strawberries, currants and brambles.

         Bumblebee populations are in serious decline in Minnesota and elsewhere.  In future blogs, we will give you some suggestions on how we can help them.[2] 


[1] From The Bumblebee by Sarah K. Jenison, MI.  See

Friday, September 11, 2009

Blooming in a Garden Now-You bet your Aster!

Aster macrophyllus, commonly called Big-leafed aster, or Large-leafed aster, is blooming now in Minnesota.  A native perennial to Minnesota and other parts of the US, this plant is very attractive to pollinators.  It is extremely easy to grow, re-seeds like crazy and will form a groundcover in a lawn.  Leave areas of your lawn un-mowed for a fantastic late-summer display.  Pollinators such as honeybees and bumblebees find this plant attractive, and birds love the seedheads and will visit a patch of Aster macrophyllus all winter long.

I was delighted to find that after I planted 6 plugs of Aster macrophyllus, it re-seeded all over my lawn grass, and I was able to stop mowing in difficult areas and let the Aster take over.  I do mow it in the spring.  This is a useful plant for difficult dry woodland situations, since it does well in some shade. Pair it with various goldenrods for a stunning display.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Visiting our Childhood Voice

In the silence he has heard
Talking bee and ladybird
And the butterfly has flown
O’er him as he lay alone.[1]

          Wherever we look these days animal and plant species are in decline, and the world is waking up to this and becoming alarmed as it should, and it proceeds, always with a calculator in hand, to explain with numbers the value of a species and to prove its decline: 80% of plants are pollinated; 1 of every 3 bites of food comes to us through animal pollinators; monarch butterfly populations have dropped 38%, and so it goes on, and species by species the great diversity of living things slowly decays before our eyes.  The figures are persuasive, but something is amiss, the magic is gone, and one has a vague feeling of discontent in trying to capture the beautiful world of nature with numbers, for the agents of pollination are not numbers, they are our fellow creatures that we have known since we were children, and when we think of them in this way, we see the reality that pesticides are death,  the decline of birds and butterflies is the illness of a dear friend, and their extinction unthinkable.   Our approach to conservation must be more than calculations and science; it must be an affair of the heart.  
            In Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, part of which is quoted above, a little girl finds a toy soldier and buries it, and it lies there through season after season, seeing all but telling nothing: 
He has seen the starry hours
And the springing of the flowers;
And the fairy things that pass
In the forests of the grass.
And yet, 
Not a word will he disclose, 
Not a word of all he knows.

            We who look upon the world of nature and see it in such sad decline, we who know so much yet cannot speak of what we see except in numbers, are we like the dumb soldier unable to say what is in our hearts?  I do not belittle the scientists for they and their numbers are essential soldiers in this battle, nor do I doubt their passion, for I have met them.    Bees, butterflies, bats and birds, all have found their way into our poetry, our music, our art; yet when we speak of them in their time of extremity, we seem afraid to give voice to our sentiment, and we try to prove our case in a removed and dispassionate way with formulae. Something else is needed, another voice, perhaps an ancient one that we can find only if we revisit our childhood, perhaps in the verses of Stevenson writing of nature seen through the eyes of the child awakening in the morning:
There my garden grows again
Green and rosy painted,
As at eve behind the pane
From my eyes it fainted.
Just as it was shut away,
Toy-like, in the even,
Here I see it glow with day
Under glowing heaven
Every path and every plot
Every bush of roses,
Every blue forget-me-not
Where the dew reposes.[2]


[1] The Dumb Soldier, from A Child's Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson
[2] ) Night and Day, from A Child's Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson