The Humble-Bee

SladenDid you know that there used to be a Dominion Apiarist? As far as I can see, there isn’t one any more, but I could be wrong … there are State Apiarists all over the United States, and the Dominion in question, Canada, is not that far away, and just as agricultural. The Apiarist in question was F.W.L. Sladen, born in Kent in 1876.

As a child, young Frederick explored the natural history of his fifteenth-century Kent home, Ripple Court, and became fascinated by bees. In 1892, aged 16, he published a forty-page booklet on the types of humble- (or bumble-) bee, the first ever such work, and he startled adult, trained, entomologists with the detail and accuracy of his observations.

In 1896, Sladen, who was equally interested in honey bees and their commercial exploitation, travelled to India, and was introduced to the stingless dwarf honey bee, Apis florea, which led him to consider the possibility, not of importing this alien bee species to Europe, but of breeding the sting out of British bees. On his return to Britain, he became a full-time bee-keeper and honey producer, also selling honey bee queens and workers to other apiarists.

At the same time, he kept up his research on humble-bees, and in 1912 published The Humble-Bee: Its Life History and How to Domesticate It, with Descriptions of All the British Species of Bombus and Psithyrus. According to Sladen, ‘The true humble-bees comprise the genus Bombus. Seventeen different species of them are found in the British Isles. In addition, there are six British species of the genus Psithyrus, comprising the parasitic humble-bees.’ This was alarming news to me, as I thought there were about two: the ones with the white furry bottoms and the ones with the orange furry bottoms. Happily, Sladen provides colour plates to help with identification, as well as detailed inscriptions of all the species.

Plates 1–4 show the good Bombus; Plate 5 the evil Psithyrus

Plates 1–4 show the good Bombus; Plate 5 the evil Psithyrus

Bees 2

Plate 2










Plate 3

Plate 3

Plate 4

Plate 4









Plate 5: the parasites

Plate 5: the parasites




The book begins with an overview of the spread of humble-bees across the temperate (and indeed sub-Arctic) zones of the world, and goes on to describe in great detail the bee’s anatomy, including the special features such as the wing-hooks and the antenna-cleaner which are unique to these species. The life cycle of Bombus is then explained, with lots more anatomical detail, and illustrations of the nest, its structure and content.

Sladen makes all this sound not only enthralling, but also idyllic, so we are in for a rude shock in the next chapter, which describes the behavior of Psithyrus, which can only be characterized, in an anthropomorphic way, as diabolical. This ‘usurper bee’ has evolved so that each of its species preys on a specific species of humble-bee, which it resembles so closely that the casual observer fails to distinguish the two. But researching over four years, Sladen ‘noticed that in every case the Psithyrus female had taken the place of the mother of the colony, whose remains I generally found lying under or near the nest. Investigation showed that it is the practice of the Psithyrus female to enter the nest of the Bombus, to sting the queen to death, and then to get the poor workers to rear her own young instead of their own brothers and sisters.’ Even nastier behaviour than that of the cuckoo!

An equally distressing chapter enumerates, and in some cases illustrates, the various parasites to which Bombus is prey, one particularly revolting one having the distinction of having first been described by Professor Adam Sedgwick. Larger natural enemies include great tits, who apparently pick off the bees when they are so drunk on lime-flower nectar that they can’t defend themselves (or perhaps they were actually intoxicated by a Proustian moment?).

If you want to study the bees at your leisure, Sladen provides instructions for locating and digging up a nest without disturbing the bees, and on how to build a ‘humble-bee hut’, a sort of garden shed where as many as eight colonies can be housed, each with its own connection to the outside world. For him, ‘it was a pleasant relaxation after the day’s work to sit on a chair inside the house and study [by the light of a candle, which they ignored] the various proceedings of the bees; and the stillness of night was conducive to close observation’.

But to take his study a stage further, Sladen wanted to know how the life of the colony began: this involved finding nests in the wild and attempting to replicate their conditions in suitable areas of his own garden, either catching and transferring the queens, or providing such desirable residences that they choose them of their own accord. (There is a jarring moment when he advises clipping their wings so that they cannot escape; and another later, in the chapter on forming a (dead) collection – potassium cyanide, readily available from your chemist, anyone?) He was eventually able to build up a picture of the life cycle of a colony from the queen first choosing a nest through to the next generations of queens setting out, with all the disasters of floods, mice, weasels, badgers and ants (who eat the bee larvae), as well as the parasites, which have to be survived for the genetic line to continue.

Charles Darwin, who was very interested in the behavior of bees, and used his children to plot their paths to and from the nests, made the point in a famous passage from On the Origin of Species that some plants such as red clover and Viola trifolia are pollinated only by humble-bees: ‘The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great measure upon the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; … Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; … Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!’ – a good example of the ‘web of complex relations’ which binds together plants and animals in the ‘struggle for existence’…

Sladen’s own struggle for existence took him, in the year his book was published, to Canada, where as Dominion Apiarist he continued to observe bees, and advise the government and the agricultural industries on insects and pollination. Sadly, he died only nine years later, aged 45, but his engaging and minutely detailed study has remained a standard work for a century.


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6 Responses to The Humble-Bee

  1. Leslie Roby says:

    enjoyed reading this……………we observe our bumbles each day and wonder about their lives past the flowers. thank you

  2. Thanks for this! Me too – I had no idea about their lives outside the flowers.

  3. Andrew Maison says:

    Fascinating article Caroline. Us beekeepers often clip a wing of the Queen honeybee. Sometimes seen as controversial, but ultimately can help beekeepers minimise swarms, a large proportion of which cannot be recovered, and die.

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