In which naming the bees is like worship



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.


honeybee on yellow

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.’

cropped bumblebee

They are huge in proportion to the pin-thin legs, like growths, or the saddlebags of an overloaded packhorse.

bumblebee cropped

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.

climbing bumblebee with sacs

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.

A visit to the plague village

riley graves

We came upon the graves suddenly, part way round a muddy walk in the grey half-light of a January afternoon.

They are protected by the National Trust now, a low wall like a sheepfold enclosing six weatherbeaten headstones and a tomb that mark the last resting places of the Hancock family: a father, John, and his children, who died of bubonic plague in 1666.

Only the mother, Margaret, survived and she is remembered today for having to drag the corpses away from the farm where they lived, then dig the graves herself.

Everywhere you go around the Derbyshire village of Eyam (pronounced ‘eem’) you see memorials to the people who died of plague in a few traumatic months nearly 350 years ago.

The headstones, the tourist signs and the little plaques on the walls of cottages commemorate an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice. For when plague arrived in the village, via some fleas that flew out of a piece of cloth the local tailor had ordered from London, the villagers decided they would not escape to neighbouring Sheffield but would remain in their homes in order to stop the disease spreading.

It was a voluntary quarantine and it almost certainly saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the north of England.

But it cost them dear. More than 250 people died out of a population of just 800. The rector, William Mompesson, wrote in a letter to his uncle: ‘I may truely say our Town has become a Golgotha, a place of skulls; and had there not been a small remnant of us left, we had been as Sodom and like unto Gomorrah. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations. My nose never smelt such noisome smells, and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles.’

I find the villagers’ selflessness hard to comprehend. It would have been so easy to walk out of Eyam, over the surrounding hills and into nearby places where there was no plague.

View across Eyam

View across Eyam

Instead, they stayed and if they did not catch the disease themselves they had to watch their families, friends and neighbours die slowly and painfully, their bodies covered in stinking, oozing sores.

The carved letters on the lid of John Hancock’s tomb were full of rainwater but gradually we managed to spell them out:

‘Remember man, as thou goest by, as thou art now, even once was I, as I doe now, so must thou lye. Remember man that thou shalt die’.


Perhaps this is the clue to how the villagers stuck to their courageous decision. Unlike us, they lived in a time when death was on display all the time, not sanitised and shut away in institutions.

They also had a moral framework that made it hard for them to kid themselves that their actions had no consequences.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to why there is so much suffering in the world, or why some people seem to get so much more of it than others.

I also know that most of us are not called to make the extreme sacrifices that the villagers of Eyam did in the 17th century.

But I did go away from the place wondering whether part of living a daring life might be having the courage to look death squarely in the face and let that reality shape more of my decisions.