Oxford: the day after Storm Ophelia. I was walking home through the suburbs, and looking for bees. A beekeeper in Liverpool had reported an October swarm, possibly brought on by the unusual weather, so I was watching for swarm-scouts, or for other bees behaving in unusual ways.
In a subway under the ring-road I found what I was looking for: there were four of them, moving strangely inside the tunnel. They were flying an inch-or-two below the ceiling, and investigating the cracks and the crevices, the screw-holes and the edges of the maintenance hatches, looking and measuring with their bodies.
There wasn’t enough activity for any of the holes to be a nest entrance, but they were definitely moving purposefully. Perhaps there was a nest in a void between the road and the roof and they were surveying the space before propolising the gaps? I checked outside, both sides: nothing. I checked the floor: no dead bees nor signs of hive-debris. Perhaps there was a mineral in the stonework that was attracting them? Or something in the paint? They certainly weren’t acting like normal bees.
They seemed slightly bigger than the bees in my garden, the size of large workers or small drones. Their eyes seemed too small for drones, but in the dim, artificial light of the subway it was difficult to make out any detail. I was also looking mostly at their undersides as they flew above me, which made observation difficult. What were they doing? I waited and watched them, trying to come up with a explanation for their strange behaviour. (video embedded below).
The answer came to me suddenly, or rather, the realisation came that I’d been asking the wrong question. I should not have been asking “what are they doing?”, but rather “what are they?”. When one landed, it became obvious. They weren’t bees, but drone-flies (Eristalis tenax), a type of hoverfly that mimics the drone honeybee. I had been utterly taken-in by the mimicry – and as I’d been expecting honeybees, honeybees were what I ‘saw’. It was a reminder to look with my eyes rather than my brain – to observe first, and then form an explanation, rather than the other way around.
🐝 🐝 🐝
I’d first read about drone-flies in “The Lore of the Honey-Bee”, by Tickner Edwardes. He discusses the ancient practice of bugonia, the widespread and long-held belief that bees generated spontaneously from the decaying bodies of dead animals. He quotes advice from a “quaint medieval translation” of Virgil’s Georgics, giving instructions for creating a swarm of bees: in spring, a two-year-old ox should be “thumped to death” and laid in a “small and narrowed chamber” with “thyme and fresh rosemarie”. The windows and doors should be blocked with mud. “In time, the warm humour beginneth to ferment inside the soft bones of the carcase” until at last a swarm of bees will “burst forth, thick as rain-droppes from a summer cloud”.
Edwardes provides an explanation for this strange belief, perhaps drawing from the work of the German biologist CL Osten-Sacken. The conditions described were not likely to spontaneously produce (or even attract) honeybees but they were, he suggests, perfect conditions for breeding drone-flies. Upon opening the chamber and finding stripey-insects, it would be very easy to believe that the bugonia process had been successful.
This explanation is convincing, but incomplete. In daylight, most people (especially those with any experience of beekeeping) can easily tell the difference between a honeybee and a drone-fly. Osten-Sacken suggested that the mis-identification is solely a result of ‘mental inertia’ – we do not question what we see, especially if it makes logical sense within our understanding of the world. Edwardes notes wryly that the belief in bugonia would provide “some very promising material” for a study into “the persistence of delusions”.
However, based on my experience in the subway, I suspect there is a further element. Not only does bugonia create a perfect habitat for breeding drone-flies, it also creates perfect conditions for drone-flies to look like bees.
In many ways, the bugonia chamber is similar to the subway. The blocked windows create a darkened space, so careful observation is hindered. A small room also means that the insects are more likely to be disturbed by the observer’s presence – and it’s much more difficult to identify a ‘bee’ that’s flying than one which has landed. A low roof adds to this difficulty – in an enclosed space, drone-flies will fly close to the ceiling, so the observer is forced to identify them from their bellies rather than their backs. The obvious stripe-patterns and eyes are not visible.
Most people are reluctant to hang-about in a dimly-lit subway on the edge of town: so too would they avoid spending time in a room that smells of rotting ox. In both cases, the conditions make careful observation unpleasant. Combined with the cramped space and low light, it is unsurprising that people were reluctant or unable to make accurate observations of the ‘bees’.
We see what we are expecting to see, whether it is ox-born or storm-born bees. I find it somehow reassuring that the mistakes made by the ancients are not long-lost, or the product of abstract academic conjecture. The same mistakes can be duplicated now, in an suburban subway on a grey October afternoon.