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:
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.