John Burroughs Considers the Bee

A bumble bee judges the thistle “Cirsium horridulum” to be not at all horrible

“Into the material gathered from outward nature the creative artist puts himself, as the bee puts herself into the nectar she gathers from the flowers to make it into honey. Honey is the nectar plus the bee, and a poem, or other work of art, is fact and observation plus the man.”

“Our best growth is attained when we match knowledge with love, insight with reverence, understanding with sympathy and enjoyment: else the machine becomes more and more, and the man less and less.”

                                      John Burroughs ~ from “Science and Literature” (1914)

Comments always are welcome.


33 thoughts on “John Burroughs Considers the Bee

    1. Everyone seems to be cursing the pollen just now, so it seemed only fair to acknowledge its better qualities. And, yes: much of the harshness abroad in the land might well be a result of forgetting the wisdom in Burroughs’s words.

  1. Astute. (on other notes: did you see the N-NW sky yesterday around 5 pm? Weird cloud formations – the normal impressive lumps streaming in from the gulf, but these long long linear lines like dragon’s tails streaming the opposite direction in a middle layer of air. Got a few pix, but was wishing for your camera and skills. Even in the golden light ( sun reflected from behind a large dark cloud bank) it all looked very unstable..air didn’t feel “right” late last night on dog walk. We’ll see what afternoon brings)

    1. I did see that, and thought, “There’s the leading edge.” Sure enough, we have our cloudy morning. I wouldn’t be surprised at all by light rain. We’ll see.

  2. You prompted me to look further into the history of horridulum. I’ve always taken the l to indicate a diminutive, and it struck me as strange that a botanist would call this thistle ‘a little horrid’ or ‘somewhat horrid.’ To my surprise, I found that the original Latin sense of horridum was strictly physical: ‘standing on end, sticking out, rough, shaggy, bristly, prickly.’ (The diminutive horridulum toned that down a little.) From there the adjective horridum eventually added the senses ‘rough, rude, rugged, wild, savage,’ and finally ‘horrid.’ Only those last few senses, and especially the final one, have made it into English.

    1. That’s really interesting. The physical attributes certainly apply to the plant, and some (“sticking out,” “shaggy”) are more neutral than negative.

      I found an amusing entry whose author listed related words in descending order of horror: horrific, horrendous, horrible, horrid. If I had a pasture filling up with these thistles, I think I’d bump them up from horrid to horrendous, bypassing horrible altogether.

      1. It’s sometimes prudent to give these thistles a wide berth. Only once did I ever find this species right in Austin, as opposed to near Elgin and farther east. Needless to say I didn’t give the Austin plant a wide berth but took advantage of my opportunity. Like the author of that article, I thought about the various related adjectives but didn’t try to rank them by the degree of horror they inspire.

  3. Oh Linda, I love these lagniappe posts! First, it was great seeing an old familiar friend pop up in the inbox: “Lagniappe.” – Then it was wonderful to savor the wisdom of the quote… Thank you for this food for thought as well as the lovely image!

    1. You”re welcome, Lisa. I suspect serendipity will play a role, here. When I came across Burroughs’s quotation in my files, I remembered the pretty bumble, and a second post was born. Among other things, it was fascinating to see how many species of bumble bees we have. This one surely isn’t the American, but I don’t have a good photo of identifying marks. Next time, I’ll know what to look for.

    1. That is pollen: on its head, its legs, and even on its body. It had to be in bumble bee heaven. Despite the thistle’s ability to wreak havoc with human body parts, the flower is a perfect landing pad for a bee, and this one was taking full advantage of it.

  4. I love this shot and really like the quotation, too. Something very appealing about a bumblebee, kind of messy but likable, like the overweight Labradors of the insect world. My dog used to come home from a walk with a pretty fair collection of cockleburrs, tickseed, milkweed silk, or anything else he could bumble into, just like this guy and his pollen. Excellent photo.

    1. Earlier this week, I was mightily surprised to discover myself covered with some kind of sticky weed, just like your dog. I got them out of the car and off my shirt, but I’ve still got a pair of jeans that need a little attention. I really like your “overweight Labradors of the insect world.” Anyone who’s been around Labs would be grinning. It’s such a great image.

      I’m glad you like the photo. I’m still not very good at capturing small bees or flies, but I could see this big guy coming: making a beeline, if you will. Not only that, he wasn’t about to leave that flower until he was nicely loaded with pollen. It helps when they hang around.

    1. The detail is amazing, isn’t it? I was so entranced by the pollen, I missed the detail on the back of his wings. If you click-and-enlarge, you can see they’re covered with little dots. It’s like a Pointillist was called in to finish decorating him.

    1. Lovely, Gerard. After all, the thistle doesn’t intend harm, and as for the bee? It’s in its nature to produce sweetness. They do balance one another very nicely.

  5. All things of this world are a combination of many.

    I am surprised that we do not have thistle in our yard as one of our bird feeders is dedicated to feeding the finches with it. Whether planting itself or being distributed by the birds none has shown up here. Despite its irritating thorns, we would enjoy having a few to enjoy.

    1. If you’re feeding niger seed (aka black thistle seed), it won’t cause any problems in your yard because it isn’t thistle. Beyond that, since it’s imported from other countries like Ethiopia and India, the USDA requires that it be heat-treated to sterilize the seed. No growth, there. If you’d like some thistle, I’d be happy to send you some seed, but honestly? I’m not sure you’d want this one. There’s a much better-behaved thistle that produces a later, pretty purple flower — and I’m told the goats love it. It probably would be an annual for you — if it weren’t you’d wish it were!

      1. I hadn’t looked into why we weren’t getting thistle in the yard. Thanks for the explanation. I’ll pass on your offer. :) Maybe I’ll just collect some local native seed later this year.

    1. Thank you, Dina. Even the tiniest creatures are delightful, aren’t they? As I mentioned above, I profited by the bee’s happy greed. It slowed him down for a time, and I didn’t have to chase him!

    1. Of course you do! And of course I thought of you when I chose it. I was fascinated by the bumble bee identification chart I linked. I had no idea there are so many species.

  6. Beautiful! And of course, there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ only whether we humans can discern all the qualities of the subject. :-)

    1. That’s so often true: at least, in regard to the natural world. The bluebird, the rattlesnake, the bunny and the vulture all have their roles to play. I’ll grant you that I’m going to move along the wasps who show up above my door every year, but I don’t fuss at the ones who live in the trees. And, as you so well know, a little study can reduce the fear factor.

  7. Found the comments :) I like the concept of Lagniappe…both yours for the photographic extras of your creative spirit…and that of its origins. Now if I could get my tongue wrapped around how to pronounce it. Maybe on the fourth day I’ll be swinging it in style.

    1. I saw your comment at lunchtime, and was perplexed. I’d assumed the comment box would appear on pages as well as posts.

      Not so. Apparently, the system now requires that we activate comments on pages individually. Anyway, thanks to you, I discovered the problem, and managed to get it corrected. So, now there’s a place to leave comments on my “About” page, too.

      For posts, the problem is that you have to click a post title to get a comment box — not the blog title. Once there are a few more posts, I think it will work itself out. Anyway — many thanks for drawing my attention to it all.

      “LAN-yapp” will do just fine. There are variations, but that’s what I hear most often. Every time I read it, I get hungry for beignets and coffee.

  8. That’s a really nice quote, the final one, and it’s always reassuring to see a bee full of pollen isn’t it? Especially when they stay in place long enough to watch and photograph. The detail is great!

  9. The only thing that can make me smile more than a pollen-covered bee is an enthusiastically-dining flower beetle. It is amusing that, as a child, I was afraid of big bees. Now, I love their lumbering selves, because I can keep up with them — mostly.

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