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“And then pell-mell his harvest follows swift
Blossom and Borage, lime and balm and clover
On downs the thyme, on cliffs the scantling thrift
Everywhere the bees go racing with the hours
For every bee becomes a drunken lover
Standing upon his head to sup the flowers

The Land (Vita Sackville West)

Poets have recently taken to bees again. Carol Ann Duffy published The Bees in 2011 (shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and the Costa Book Award), which included a poem called Ariel, in tribute to Sylvia Plath’s 1960s bee poems.

Sean Borodale’s 2012 Bee Journal, his first collection of poetry, was also short-listed for a Costa Book Award and the TS Eliot Prize. As Gillian Clarke said in her Granta review this is “a year in the life and death of a swarm, from bringing the bees home in early summer, ‘noise of weight; /we carried this / through our proscenium of grasses’ to their winter silence, ‘in our hands the corpse of a city’. The poems are true, forensic, beautiful.”

Jo Shapcott has also written bee poems. ‘I Tell The Bees’ is one in a series of six poems written by her as part of the City of London Festival 2010.

We tend to take bees for granted. We think we know them. Yet it is not until we look more closely that we become aware of the complexity of their lives.

It was only a few years ago I even realized there were different sorts of bees. Having them pointed out on visits to community gardens occasionally I started noticing them, particularly on certain plants. Bee hotels, clusters of tubes of bamboo, in odd corners, were obviously different from hives as a home for bees.

Honey bees get most of the press of course. They have been domesticated since prehistory and so have always been a commercial asset. Their recent rapid decline has finally caused great concern worldwide and several UK TV programmes have highlighted this recently, and there is even a forthcoming cover for and article in Time Magazine. Pesticides (especially neonicotinoids) mites, viruses, climate change all to blame, as well as the increase in monoculture in agricultural production leading to restriction of the range of food sources for all bees as well as loss of habitat. Honey bees (together with bumblebees, which over the past 20 years or so have also become a part of the bee industry, bred for commercial pollination of many plants such as tomatoes and raspberries) are now responsible for pollinating one in three mouthfuls of everything we eat. If they go so do we.

However it was only when I was given A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson for my birthday that I discovered the world of the bumblebee. This very readable book by a pioneering conservationist is a revelation. He founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to further knowledge and conservation of bumblebees.

Since reading this book a few months ago I have been looking more closely at bees. Armed with my pocket bumblebee identification cards from the Natural History Museum I have tried identifying what I see. There are over 20,000 species of bees worldwide. There are only 6 main types of bumblebee in the UK, 24 in total, and a few other types of wild bees, including solitary bees, along with honey bees, but it is still not as easy as you might think……. here is my work in progress!

I hope my identification skills will have improved over the summer, along with my photographic skills! Even with a fairly basic (non SLR) camera it is possible to get close ups, although as with any living creature it takes a lot of persistence. It has become quite addictive! But then there is the naming of names….

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