This is the summer when I realize how much I don’t know. Don’t know about boat engines, don’t know about bees. I’m trying to learn about both. The boat engines I’ll save for another day. But the bees? One species at a time, slow and steady.
Every morning I sit here with my coffee.
And every morning the oregano is lively with Bombus species, sometimes 4 or 5 quite distinct ones. If I pay attention, I see that there are slightly different behaviours at play. There are bees who will tolerate another coming to the blossoms they are at work on. A single head of flowering oregano might host 3 bees at a time.
But yesterday morning I saw a species I’d never seen before. It was very black, with a yellow head resembling the Corinthian helmets worn by hoplites, or citizen-soldiers, in ancient Greece. It had a single thin ring of yellow right at the end of its posterior. I posted a quick (and blurry) photograph on Twitter, tagging a woman who knows about bees, and learned it was Bombus vosnesenskii, the yellow-faced bumblebee.
One of the bees was nearly twice the size of the other and it was almost certainly a young queen. She tolerated no other bees on her blossoms, not even the smaller one of her own species. I watched her forage, hoping she would discover the new umbels of tomato flowers, replacing the ones that burned off during the terrible heat of two weeks ago. This species is an important pollinator of greenhouse tomatoes apparently. I watched but the oregano was too luscious to leave. She made her methodical way from flower to flower, her pollen baskets golden.
I’d like to at least learn the species I see when I sit in my red chair with my coffee. There are honey bees around too. I’ll try to figure them out as well. I remember loving book 4 of Virgil’s Georgics, devoted entirely to bees:
Of air-born honey, gift of heaven, I now
Take up the tale.
Over the years, I’ve let the oregano and lemon balm self-seed and spread. My careless style of living, as gardener at least, means that there are bees at every turn. Listen! The humming is beautiful. Drawn by scent and memory, they come to the herbs, the lemon blossoms, the flowering tomatoes, and maybe by now they recognize me too, the woman who scoops up the fallen ones, placing them carefully on geraniums, hoping they’ll recover.
And let green cassias and far-scented thymes,
And savory with its heavy-laden breath
Bloom round about…
That young queen might be the only one to overwinter after the first frost. I don’t know where the nest is but maybe that will be the logical step in this process, following the bees with their laden pollen baskets, wishing I had wings myself.