Mossy bees and foggie bees

Mossy bees, Foggie bees, Fairy bees and Domestic bees – all wonderful bumblebees. One of the nicest things about doing the public events is hearing anecdotes about bumblebees, especially those from yesteryear.

The surprising thing has been the great variety of local names we have heard bumblebees called! Scotland has been a great source of local names for bumblebees, and we’ve heard them called Foggie-bees (‘fog’ is Scots for moss or grass) and Baker-bees. The latter is used to refer to the Common carder bee, whose brown colour is similar to the brown coats worn by bakers in the past (Thanks to the book Bumblebees: Naturally Scottish by Murdo Macdonald for this explanation).

All of this talk about the different names for our furry friends compelled me to research it further. The Oxford English Dictionary gave a short description of bumblebees, but the entry also indicated that humble-bee is also used. The entry for humble-bee reads:

Humble-bee: another term for bumblebee. Origin: late Middle English: probably from the Middle Low German hummelbē, from hummel ‘to buzz’ + ‘bee’.

So it appears that the name ‘bumblebee’ is derived from the loud buzzing associated with these bees, and that when people call them ‘humble-bees’, it is not in reference to their humble, hard-working nature, but their buzzing habits. Fascinating stuff!

I have also heard tales of how people used to keep ‘tame’ bumblebees that didn’t sting, in jars. But one of the best was from a lady who used to keep bumblebees in her doll’s house! I’m not sure that captured bumblebees would really convey a scene of domestic bliss in the house, especially if the captured bees were workers who would be bit unruly without their queen around to keep them in line!

Several people have called their captured tame bees ‘lady bees’. I suspect though that these lovely ladies may indeed have been male bumblebees (which are usually a bit more docile, and cannot sting)!

Another lovely story comes from the Isle of Man. There, bumblebees are known locally as ‘bumbees’, and the people have a delightful tradition of making little bumblebee cages out of rushes. Manx legend has it that bumblebees are bad fairies that had been transformed into bumblebees because of their bad deeds.  Children there are shown how to make bumblebee cages, with a little hole that is blocked up. After catching the bees (or fairies!), the cage is left overnight, and the children’s parents would surreptitiously release the bee and replace it with a stone. The explanation goes that by being caught, the wayward fairy had been punished enough, and transformed back into a bumblebee, and the stone left as a reminder of the event. Let’s hope those fairies keep being naughty so that we’ll keep seeing bumblebees around!

To chat about these stories further, I’ve started a new topic in the forum so that we can discuss bumblebee names and anecdotes. Click here to take part.

Finally, I also wanted to post this nice photo that was sent to us by Esme in Edinburgh. It shows a bumblebee visiting flowers on a window box that was three stories up -  proof that everyone can make a difference to bumblebees, even if they only have space for a window box! You can see from the photo that Esme was the only one of her neighbours with a window box – imagine how many bees could be fed if all of her neighbours had a window box with bee-friendly flowers!

Hard at work                                                                                          High flying bees!

Back to Anthony's blog >