Whatever happened to the humblebee, the old name for the bumblebee, asked Angus Doulton of Oxfordshire in a letter to the Guardian last week.
When Darwin, or indeed any of his contemporaries, wrote of the animated bundles of fluff, he would have called them humblebees. But they weren’t humble in the sense of lowly beings doing the drudge work of nectar and pollen collecting; rather they would have been celebrated for the powerful evolutionary interaction with the flowers they had visited for millions of years. Darwin would have called them humblebees because, as they fly, they hum. Simple.
The etymological change of entomological names occurred gradually and imperceptibly, but some key events can be pin-pointed. The first great 20th-century book on bees was by Frederick Sladen, and his 1912 opus on their life history was firmly in the “humble” camp. By then, bumble, which had always been knocking around in the background as a second-rate alternative, had started to gain some ground. In Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse (1910), the eponymous heroine is troubled by squatters making mossy nests in her back yard. Chief troublemaker is one Babbitty Bumble.
It is, perhaps, at about this time that the myth of the bumblebee’s scientifically impossible flight came into play. As aeronautics took off between the wars, along with faster and sleeker planes, the clumsy-looking furry bee with its pitifully small wings and tubby body was the perfect match for its new, slightly belittling name, as it bumbled from droopy bloom to droopy bloom. By the time of the next bee monograph, by John Free and Colin Butler (1959), the humblebee had gone for ever.