Flower Devils

The “Flower Devils” series is inspired by observations of the interaction between pollinators and flowers in our garden. It started with the photo of a bumblebee on a henbane plant. Researching folklore both about bumblebees and the flowers frequented by them, it occurred to me, that bumblebees seemed to favor poisonous and often less fragrant flowers, whereas bees are rather drawn to aromatic and decorative flowers. Reading further, I learnt a flower’s shape correlates with the insects attracted to it. Some poisonous flowers, such as the aconite, belladonna, foxglove and columbine are exclusively pollinated by bumblebees, which are the only insects strong enough and possessing long enough proboscis to reach the bottom of the flower. Apparently the heavy bumblebee with its outwardly clumsy appearance has a natural connection to so-called “witch plants”.

It is perhaps not a surprise then, that in German folklore witches and even the devil himself were believed to take on the shape of a bumblebee. Among the legends count bumblebee-wax candles lit in churches, if a witch was burnt at the stake. Evil people were cursed, having to return as a bumblebee after death. The sub-earthen drone sound of a bumblebee signaled the presence of the dead. Sometimes bumblebees were given at black masses instead of consecrated wavers. Bumblebees were superstitiously feared as carriers of sickness and ritually buried to drive out plague. On the other hand a dead bumblebee worn in the pocket, was believed to ensure the purse would always be filled with money. He who managed to secretly steal the bumblebee’s honey was destined to find a huge treasure. Hence bumblebees were both viewed as good and bad omens, depending on the context and who would find it.

There was also a superstition, which occupied the world of science for decades: the so-called “bumble bee paradox”, which was solved later. During the 1930ies it was still thought impossible for an animal of the size and weight of a bumblebee to be able to fly. It was not taken into account that the wings, which circulate up to 200 times per second, are flexible, creating a tornado-like vortex and a vacuum, which enables the bumblebee to lift itself up and easily travel at 20 km per hour. (Quite fast for an animal of that size.)

Bumblebees collect up to 5 times as much pollen and nectar per day as honey bees but do not produce excess honey. Therefor they are of benefit to humans in farming, more specifically in pollinating crops, such as tomatoes.

The second part of the series focuses on honey and wild bees as pollinators and of course invaluable honey source. To call these helpful insects ‘devils’ is my way of referring to and honoring their industrious and magical nature.

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