Archive for April, 2012


Tuesday, April 17th, 2012



I’ve heard, from one of those more-or-less reliable internet sources, that J.K. Rowling had Bombus, of the family Apidae, in mind when she named one of her Harry Potter characters. I would have guessed Hagrid, the half-giant, whose profile on flying motorcycle resembles the large bumblebees that are now buzzing their way around my lawn at a respectable speed of 33 miles an hour.

Like Hagrid, the bombus likes a little less commotion than his relative, the honeybee. Still social, bumblebees live in colonies that can fit into the palm of one’s hand (though I recommend testing that idea with caution), often underground. Their diet is the same as that of honeybees — nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein), but they stockpile little of either in their messy and disorganized nests. Those bumblebees that make honey produce a very small amount, and it generally lacks the sugar content needed to prevent fermentation. For that reason, most bumblebee hives can not overwinter. (Several queens are created, fertilized and fattened up before the hives die, and those queens overwinter in protected, solitary places. Each queen singlehandedly rebuilds a hive the following spring.)

While seemingly less useful to man because of that lack of honey production, all of the estimated 250 species of Bombus pollinate plants, and some do it by a method — buzz pollination — that is beyond the ability of most honeybees. The big hulking bumble grabs hold of a flower, revs up her flight muscles and shakes the hell out of the anthers until they release their pollen. Tomatoes, potatoes and blueberries are among the crops most dependent on the bumblebee’s brute strength.

While the bumblebee will defend the hive if it is threatened, the insect is a gentle non-aggressor, with a cultural approval rate matched only by ladybugs and butterflies. Strong, helpful, loyal, well-liked, capable of both group and solitary living — sounds more like Hagrid all the time.

But J.K. Rowling knew something of the etymology of entomology when she set out to weave a thousand different strands of inspiration into the story of the boy who did not die at the hands of he-who-must-not-be-named. The genus name Bombus comes from the Latin word for a buzzing or humming sound. (That motorcycle drone is not the sound made by the bumblebee’s wings, by the way. It is the vibration of the flight muscles in the bee’s thorax — think about strumming a taut rubber band on a homemade banjo — which, because they also serve to raise the bee’s body temperature, produce that sound even when the wings do not move.) Rowling had in mind a character who had such a passion for music “I imagined him walking around humming to himself.” Bombus wasn’t quite the right name for that figure, so she reached back, past “bumblebee,” past the Shakespearean term “humble bee” which had succumbed to linguistic extinction by the end of World War II, to an even more archaic colloquialism for large humming insects — the “dumbledor.”
– Sharron Cohen