It’s the season for hot colours. I am making nasturtium vinegar and it sits on the windowsill as lurid as Lucozade. In the garden, the helenium is out, a variety called ‘Moerheim Beauty’. I have read that helenium is commonly called ‘sneezeweed’ because its leaves used to be dried for snuff.
It’s the season for exam papers too and I have spent entire days marking scripts, but with the sun so bright outside it’s impossible not to wander out from time to time, and sometimes to linger over lunch in the garden. That’s when I realise that the helenium is a magnet for bees.
Last week I was watching the honeybees come and go; it’s like a form of hypnosis. Then a bumblebee arrived and began to crawl over the flower centres. It was my daughter who said: ‘Look at the pollen sacs.’
They are huge in proportion to the pin-thin legs, like growths, or the saddlebags of an overloaded packhorse.
Something happens when you pay attention to the natural world. You find your curiosity awakened. It’s like recovering the endlessly wondering mindset of childhood. One question predominates: what’s it called?
Trying to answer that is a humbling thing. I dive into Google, wanting to identify the bees that have come to our helenium. I am fairly sure about the honeybee: there is only one species of honeybee in the UK, and although I may have confused it with a solitary bee (225 species).
The bumblebee is more challenging. I discover that it’s definitely a female because only they have the pollen sacs. Beyond that, it could be one of 250 different species found in this country, but the Bumblebee Conservation Trust recommends starting with the eight most common ones. I used their excellent, free chart here to decide it was either a buff-tailed or a white-tailed bumblebee. I’m not sure how you could be more certain without having the two species side by side.
I planted this garden eight years ago. A succession of blindsiding life events had left me paralysed with depression: forget trying to take one day at a time; my target was to navigate the next ten minutes. Most everyday tasks became impossible but I found that if I could only get myself outside, I could garden for a couple of hours and not think about the time at all. Gradually, with help from all kinds of sources, but always against the backdrop of planting and growing, the depression receded
Depression kills your prayer life, or at least it did mine. I am recovering it slowly, along with the sense of wonder that is necessary for worship. I did not expect learning about nature to help but sometimes it feels almost sacramental, a resonance with the story of Adam in the first garden, naming the animals in response to God’s invitation to intimacy and co-operation.(Genesis 2:19).
Staying still long enough to really observe the bee, then taking the time to work on identification works a bit like contemplation for me. It opens up stillness and silence; it decentres my anxieties, my selfish preoccupations; it is a repeated, necessary reminder that humans are not the only creatures that matter on this planet.