Identifying the “Wild Bees” in John Clare’s poem – UPDATED


John Clare is one of the most celebrated English poets of rural landscapes and nature in the 19th century. To quote his biographer, Clare was “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature”.  Not only that, he was born and lived for much of his life in my adopted county, hence his epithet as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”.

One of his less well-known poems is called Wild Bees and is a stunning example of Clare’s ability to make detailed observations of the natural world and to translate those observations into poetry.  So good are those observations that, as I show below, it’s possible to identify Clare’s bees from the descriptions he gives.  First of all, here’s the full poem:

Wild Bees

These children of the sun which summer brings
As pastoral minstrels in her merry train
Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings
And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again.
The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole
In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies,
And never absent couzen, black as coal,
That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs,
With white and red bedight for holiday,
Right earlily a-morn do pipe and play
And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes.
And aye so fond they of their singing seem
That in their holes abed at close of day
They still keep piping in their honey dreams,
And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe
Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods
Where tawny white and red flush clover buds
Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe,
Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food
To these sweet poets of the summer fields;
Me much delighting as I stroll along
The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields,
Catching the windings of their wandering song.
The black and yellow bumble first on wing
To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers,
Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring
Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers;
And one that may for wiser piper pass,
In livery dress half sables and half red,
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass
And hoards her stores when April showers have fled;
And russet commoner who knows the face
Of every blossom that the meadow brings,
Starting the traveller to a quicker pace
By threatening round his head in many rings:
These sweeten summer in their happy glee
By giving for her honey melody.


Here are the bees that I think Clare is talking about:

The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole, In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies

This is the least obvious of the bees to identify, but my best guess, due to the “little hole” and “white nose“, is one of the small Yellow-Faced Bees (Hylaeus spp.) some of which (despite the name) have white faces.  UPDATE:  following discussion with Matt Smith in the comments (below) I’m going to change my mind and suggest that Clare is referring to male Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) – I think the “never absent couzen” part is the give-away.

And never absent couzen, black as coal, That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs

This has to be the female Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) which is all black except for its orange pollen brush on its rear legs, and which also nests in old walls.

The black and yellow bumble first on wing, To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers, Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring

I’m going to suggest that this is referring to the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), the queens of which tend to emerge earlier than other, similar species, hence “first on wing“.  It also usually nests in rodent holes.

In livery dress half sables and half red, Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass

This can only be the Red-shanked Carder Bee (Bombus ruderarius) the only red and black bee in the UK that makes a mossy nest above ground.

And russet commoner who knows the face, Of every blossom that the meadow brings

Finally, this must be one of my favourite bumblebees, the all-brown, Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum), which is as common as the name suggests, and is renowned for foraging on a wider range of flowers than most others, and therefore “knows the face of every blossom“.

If you have any suggestions for alternative bee identifications, please comment below.

UPDATE:  it occurred to me after I posted this that all of the bees that Clare describes are still common in Northamptonshire with the exception of the Red-shanked Carder Bee (Bombus ruderarius) which has seen a huge decline throughout its range – see the BWARS account for this species.






18 thoughts on “Identifying the “Wild Bees” in John Clare’s poem – UPDATED

  1. Matthew Smith

    Geoff – I think the “white nosed bee” is more likely to be the male of Anthophora plumipes with the white hairs and yellow face. Hylaeus are little things that tend to nest more in plant stems and the like, whereas male Anthophora can regularly be seen going in and out of nest burrows and roosting there at night. Given the regular confusion between the male and female of this species, it is likely that Clare didn’t realise the “black” and “brown” bees were the same species and just assumed that the “brown” ones dug holes as well. Matt Smith

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Matt – I did consider this possibility but rejected it as Clare’s other observations were very precise, so it seemed unlikely that he’d make that kind of mistake. And there are a couple of Hylaeus species that will nest in walls. But you may well be correct given the part about “And never absent couzen” – that does suggest a close association (i.e. male and female).

  2. Stteven Falk

    Clare’s Northants would have been a v. different one to what we see today. At Ashton Wold, both Great Yellow Bumblebee and Short-haired Bumblebee abounded side by side. Many specimens can be found in the NHM collection and I think OUM. I explored that area a couple of years ago and it is now very intensively farmed

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Steven, yes, you’re right of course. My colleague Duncan McCollin has published some work looking at the plants that have been lost from Northants, and it’s quite an extensive list.

      Northants Natural History Society has a small entomological collection and at some point I want to have a look at whether they have specimens of any of the lost bees.

  3. Ron Miksha

    Reblogged this on Bad Beekeeping Blog and commented:
    All of my life I have assumed that when a poet writes about nature, he/she is just winging it. To me, “…As trod the crimson twilight’s face…” is just a pleasant concatenation brewed in a dark basement by a moody wordsmith. It’s delightful to learn that some poets actually describe their environment with details that a keen sleuth can turn into a biodiversity record that indicates the decline of the Red-shanked Carder. Thanks, Jeff Ollerton, for your post. It was enjoyed! And now it’s shared…

  4. Dave Goulson

    The selection of species mentioned is fascinating. Someone writing a similar poem today would almost certainly mention lapidarius (since they are both distinctive and common), and not ruderarius (which are now rare as hen’s teeth). So I guess an interesting question is was lapidarius always the most common of the two and he just jumbled them all up and extrapolated from one ruderarius nest he found to assume all red and black bumblebees live in mossy nests above ground, or was ruderarius once the more common of the two? It certainly seems likely that it was much more common in his day, since few these days (including me) have ever seen a ruderarius nest.

  5. Pingback: John Clare: Landscape & Learning – Northampton – 11th November | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  6. Pingback: An Ethic of Care: A Look at Cummings’ Bee Poem – EEC Society Blog

  7. Pingback: WILD BEES, by John Clare (1820s) | Urban Bees Blog

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for that, glad you enjoyed it! There’s a fuller discussion of the poem and what it tells us about how rare or common species were in the past in my book ‘Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s